- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

The D.C. Council yesterday passed emergency legislation designed to pressure Comcast Corp. into broadcasting more Washington Nationals games in the District.

The measure, unanimously approved, requires Comcast to meet with city officials about the company’s refusal to carry the majority of Nationals games on its cable system in the District.

If Comcast refuses to meet with the city or carry Nationals games, it could be in violation of the law and have its franchise agreement revoked. But council sources said the city would be unlikely to pull the company’s agreement because residents would then have no access to Comcast cable at all.

However, Comcast officials said they do not plan to meet with District representatives because the legislation violates federal rules that prohibit municipalities from forcing cable companies to air particular programming.

The measure does not mention Comcast by name. However, it mandates that all cable companies in the city show Nationals games or meet with city officials within five days to negotiate getting the broadcasts on the air.

“I will meet with Comcast anytime, any place in the next five days,” said Jack Evans, the Ward 2 Democrat who introduced the bill. “This at least compels them to sit down.”

The measure clearly is aimed at Comcast, since it is the only cable company in the city that does not carry the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which produces most Nationals games and will begin producing Orioles games in 2007. Comcast’s refusal to carry MASN has left nearly half of the area unable to watch Nationals games.

Comcast declined to say whether it will meet with city officials. However, it maintained that it will carry MASN only after Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos agrees to change the current structure of the network. Angelos owns the majority of the network as part of an agreement with Major League Baseball to compensate him for the Nationals move to the region in 2005.

“We share the Council’s frustration with the current situation but believe that its decision to adopt this legislation may only prolong the unfortunate dispute that is keeping the Nationals off of local cable television,” said Comcast executive vice president David Cohen. “Further, as experts have pointed out, this legislation will not have any legal effect as local government efforts to mandate programming are clearly impermissible under federal law.”

Comcast has refused to carry MASN on the grounds that it should have been allowed to compete for the rights to continue broadcasting Orioles games on its own regional sports network, Comcast SportsNet, after this season.

A loss of Comcast’s franchise agreement would cost the city about $4 million in fees, plus related taxes. The company employs about 300 people in the District. It has about 100,000 customers in the city, and about 1.3 million in the region. Comcast’s operations outside the District would not be affected by the council’s actions.

MASN officials said the measure could pressure Comcast into carrying the network.

“Today’s vote is a significant step towards forcing Comcast to do what five other cable companies are already doing and show all the Nationals games,” MASN spokesman Todd Webster said. “We are hopeful that this new mandate by the D.C. Council will finally convince Comcast to abandon its efforts to punish the Nationals and their fans, and simply put the games on.”

Council members said having Nationals games broadcast in the city was important economically for the city, arguing that televised games help boost attendance and allow the team to bring in more money. More revenue for the team will in turn help the city pay for the Nationals’ $611 million stadium project in Southeast, they said.

“We have a $611 million investment on the table,” said Vincent Orange, Ward 5 Democrat. “We must do everything we can to support that investment.”

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