Comcast and Mid-Atlantic Sports Network have until the end of next week to iron out their differences or an arbitrator could step in to try to bring an end to the long-running dispute that has left many Washington Nationals fans unable to watch the team's games on television, the Federal Communications Commission said.
In an order handed down late Friday night, the FCC gave Comcast and MASN 10 business days to reach a resolution. If the two sides can't agree, MASN can ask an arbitrator to review the case. The arbitrator would have 45 days to reach a decision.
According to MASN, the FCC ruling requires that Comcast carry the network, and the arbitrator would simply determine the proper price Comcast must pay.
"The question is no longer when Comcast ... will carry MASN. The question is how soon," MASN spokesman Todd Webster said.
Soon, however, may not mean this year. Some legal experts said the FCC's language is ambiguous about the arbitrator's role and that MASN may have to first prove Comcast was acting in a discriminatory fashion by not carrying the network.
Furthermore, an arbitrator's decision would not necessarily be the last word on the issue, because the FCC would then review the arbitrator's decision and the case could be appealed. As a result, the airing of Nationals games on Comcast this season still appears unlikely.
Comcast, the region's largest cable provider, has refused to carry MASN since the beginning of last year, leaving about 1.5 million subscribers unable to watch most Nationals games. MASN is carried by five distributors, including Cox, RCN and Charter cable services, along with DirecTV satellite and Verizon's FiOS television service.
The FCC order was delivered in conjunction with the commission approving Comcast and Time Warner's purchase of bankrupt cable company Adelphia. Time Warner also is bound by the order.
MASN was created as part of an agreement allowing the Orioles and Nationals to share the same broadcast area. The Orioles were awarded the rights to the Washington market in 1981, but Major League Baseball determined the rights could be shared when the Nationals moved to the area in 2005.
Comcast, which broadcasts Orioles games through the end of this year, has refused to carry MASN on the grounds it should have been given the chance to compete for the Orioles' rights beyond 2006. It also has claimed MASN is charging too much for carriage, especially because it currently has no programming aside from baseball. It plans to roll out 24-hour programming July 31.
"Comcast's decision with respect to the carriage of MASN -- a part-time overpriced network -- has been based on the best interest of our customers and not on the ownership of MASN," said D'Arcy Rudnay, Comcast's vice president of communications. "Thus, as any fair reading of the record will demonstrate, the complaints lodged by MASN against Comcast are false.
"Comcast has made numerous proposals that would result in the immediate televising of Nationals games but has been met with stubborn intransigence from MASN."
The Orioles control 90 percent of MASN, with the Nationals owning 10 percent. The Orioles are also paying the Nationals $20 million this year in rights fees, but the Nationals gradually will increase their ownership of the network to 33 percent and earn larger payments from the Orioles. Beginning next season, MASN will be the broadcast home of both the Nationals and Orioles.