Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Three months of vicious mudslinging between the Baltimore Orioles and Comcast Corp. finally will reach a courtroom today when a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge hears a motion from the team to dismiss Comcast’s lawsuit against it.

Locked in a nasty legal battle with the Orioles for control over cable sports TV in the Mid-Atlantic, Comcast sued the team and Major League Baseball in late April. Comcast claims the development of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), co-owned by the two defendants, breaches the cable’s existing TV contract with the Orioles.

The team, which intends to move its local pay TV games from Comcast SportsNet (CSN) to MASN in 2007 to join current distribution on the network of Washington Nationals games, vehemently disagrees and has petitioned the Federal Communications Commission for a ruling forcing Comcast to place MASN on its cable systems.

“I think both sides are going to be throwing all the same bombs we have been for the last few months,” said Arnold Weiner, a Lutherville, Md., attorney representing the Orioles. “But I don’t see Comcast having a case. I really don’t.”

The Philadelphia-based Comcast, of course, strongly challenges that view, and in several pre-trial motions, has sought to demonize Orioles owner Peter Angelos.

“They’ve got a much higher bar to meet in this than we do. The standards to dismiss are going to be very hard for them to reach, and quite frankly, I don’t think they’re going to get there,” said Julian Epstein, a spokesman for Comcast.

If the Orioles franchise prevails in its motion, it will gain a major boost in the development of MASN, in which the team holds a 90 percent interest. If Comcast fights back the motion to dismiss, a full trial almost certainly will be forthcoming. There has been no mention within the industry of behind-the-scenes settlement talks. Comcast argues the Mid-Atlantic region will not support two regional sports networks. The Orioles, in response, believe Comcast is acting as a monopolist and hurting consumers.

It is not certain whether Judge Durke Thompson will render a ruling immediately after the hearing. He retains the option to make a bench ruling or take the case under advisement.

The hearing itself will center on whether MASN represents a third party in the contractual relationship between CSN and the Orioles. Comcast claims MASN is a third party, and as a result, the planned move of the team’s TV games to MASN violates key terms in the existing TV deal that allow CSN to match terms. But the Orioles contend MASN is a trade name for TCR Inc., an Orioles subsidiary that entered into the contract with CSN.

While the legal battle has been waged, Comcast refuses to carry MASN on its cable systems, leaving most Nationals games unavailable to most Washington-area residents. Nationals games are seen on DirecTV, RCN Cable, and on over-the-air broadcasts on WDCA-TV (Channel20).

Meanwhile, the Orioles and TCR last week asked the Federal Communications Commission to place restrictions on Comcast’s planned acquisition of assets owned by Adelphia Communications, arguing the move and subsequent expansion of Comcast’s territory would “substantially increase Comcast’s incentive and ability to discriminate against TCR to the detriment of millions of consumers and baseball fans.” A coalition of satellite TV providers, including DirecTV, and public interest groups recently sent a similar notice to the FCC.

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