- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 10, 2005

Given the hysteria in recent days over the still developing Washington Nationals TV schedule, one might expect the games that do find the airwaves to be shown in grainy black-and-white with graphics from the 1970s.

Nationals fans will be pleased to know the team’s TV games, airing on WDCA-TV (Channel20) and produced by the new Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), are comparable in quality to those of other major league clubs and in some ways superior to the Baltimore Orioles’ coverage on Comcast SportsNet.

Despite announcing and production crews frantically assembled in a matter of days, MASN’s production of the Nationals features all the replays, camera angles and graphic elements fans should rightfully expect.

Plenty of rough edges in the coverage still exist, however, and are not limited to the glaring lack of distribution agreements with any cable and satellite carriers. Friday night’s Nationals game against Florida — the team’s second on local TV and the first seen by many fans — featured some choppy exits to commercials between innings, flubbed scores and a predictable lack of familiarity with Washington’s roster.

But the chief lightning rod for fan criticism likely will be game analyst Ron Darling. His partner in the booth, veteran play-by-play man Mel Proctor, has returned to the Washington area after an eight-year stint in California and sounds like he has barely missed a day. Proctor’s smooth, easygoing delivery is a welcome respite to the over-caffeinated announcers littered around baseball.

But Darling remains tentative in analyzing judgment calls and overly prone to cliches. On Friday, Darling repeatedly referred to Marlins pitcher Dontrelle Willis as “an athlete.” In fairness, Darling’s role with the Nationals represents his first full-time, permanent broadcasting job after a largely successful 13-year pitching career. And thankfully he avoids the forced enthusiasm endemic to the Orioles’ broadcasting crew on CSN. But Darling’s development will be closely monitored by Nationals fans during the course of the season.

WDCA management, essentially invisible since the deal to air the Nationals was struck, also will be on the spot. The station’s promotion of its Nationals coverage is finally showing an overdue pulse, but more work will be needed to avoid the anemic ratings Monday for the team’s season opener.

District officials, however, are less concerned over the quality of the Nationals broadcasts than bulking up the quantity of coverage beyond the 79 over-the-air games now slated for WDCA. A half-hour conference call last week between MLB President Bob DuPuy, District Mayor Anthony Williams and D.C. Councilman Jack Evans generated a promise from baseball to televise about 120 games by the end of season. But the pledge arrived with no firm details as to when cable and satellite providers will begin carrying MASN.

The most likely scenario, say several industry sources, is the arrival first of a distribution pact with a satellite carrier such as DirecTV, with that deal used to put pressure on Comcast, the region’s dominant cable provider.

The heavy presence of WDCA in the Nationals’ TV landscape also potentially sets up some false expectations for 2006, as the number of free, over-the-air games likely will be a fraction of this year’s slate, with dozens of contests shifting to MASN and the world of pay TV.

And as the Nationals find their way into TV homes around the region, a hangover still exists over the last-minute deal MLB struck with Orioles owner Peter Angelos to create MASN. Nearly all of MASN equity will remain with Angelos, leaving the Nationals with a market-rate annual rights fee, but little chance to share in the potential economic upside of the regional sports network.

The move has already frustrated several potential buyers of the Nationals, who now plan to bid significantly less for the franchise, with the ultimate price perhaps dropping $75million off the $350million or so MLB hopes to reap. But industry analysts say the Angelos agreement, while not necessarily ideal, was still the best possible outcome, particularly given the possibility of a lengthy and nasty legal battle with Baltimore’s most famous litigator.

“A lawsuit would have been absolutely terrible. I can’t imagine a worse result,” said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports industry consultant. “Whenever partners battle amongst themselves, the results are generally quite terrible.”

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