- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Baltimore Orioles petitioned the Federal Communications Commission yesterday to compel Comcast Corp. to begin immediate distribution of the Orioles-controlled Mid-Atlantic Sports Network and the Washington Nationals games it produces.

The Orioles said Comcast is in violation of federal program carriage rules. The team also said Comcast, by refusing to carry MASN on its cable systems, is unlawfully punishing MASN for a failed attempt to gain an equity stake in the developing TV operation.

FCC statutes prohibit cable and satellite TV operators from trading distribution for equity and from deciding which channels to carry based on their corporate affiliation.

Local distribution of Nationals games is limited to over-the-air station WDCA-TV (Channel 20), DirecTV’s channel 626 and RCN Cable’s channel 8. None of those is universally available in the Washington-Baltimore area.

“The sooner we can get the Nationals games on TV, the sooner they can build a fan base,” said David Frederick, a District attorney representing the Orioles. “We’re trying to protect the Nationals’ fans from a monopolist, and we recognize that’s not easy.”

Yesterday’s FCC filing is an outgrowth of an ongoing breach of contract lawsuit filed by Comcast SportsNet, the Bethesda regional sports network and Comcast subsidiary, against the Orioles and Major League Baseball. CSN said the defendants violated its contract with the Orioles by announcing plans to shift the team’s local pay TV games to MASN beginning in 2007.

CSN holds a contractual right to match any third-party offer for the Orioles’ TV rights. But the club and MLB argue MASN is not a third party but rather a trade name for Orioles subsidiary TCR Inc. and moved Monday to dismiss the case.

While that litigation continues, Comcast said it will not distribute MASN. Comcast is by far the largest cable operator in the region, serving about 1.4 million households.

“We support program carriage rules. They’re good for the industry but not when the networks are created through a breach of contract,” Comcast spokesman D’Arcy Rudnay said. “MASN is using some very important public policy to support its breach of contract.”

Comcast executives also said they offered MLB, owner of the Nationals, more than the $20million a year MASN is paying the club for its local TV rights.

The Orioles’ filing, joined by an emergency petition for injunctive relief, also seeks “substantial damages.”

The Orioles said Comcast is trampling on their efforts to develop MASN by urging other cable and satellite operators not to carry MASN and by telling members of Congress that MASN’s existence is “unnecessary.”

“The long-term ramifications of Comcast’s actions are severe: With each passing day Comcast’s discrimination in favor of … Comcast SportsNet becomes more pernicious and its past efforts to extract an equity interest in exchange for carriage of Nationals games more insidious,” reads the Orioles’ filing to the FCC.

Baltimore’s vigorous legal fight on behalf of the Nationals marks an ironic twist in the long baseball rivalry between the two cities.

For years, Orioles owner Peter Angelos lobbied against an MLB team moving to Greater Washington. But with the local TV rights of the Orioles and Nationals now linked under the MASN umbrella, he now holds a financial motive to get as much distribution for both clubs as possible.

Comcast has 30 days to respond to the FCC petition. The Orioles then will have an opportunity to react to Comcast’s filing before the FCC begins its deliberations. The commission holds fairly broad power, however, to act how and when it wishes and could react sooner to honor the team’s request for emergency relief.

In an effort to seek quick resolution, however, the Orioles offered to have Comcast pay them the same rate as DirecTV and RCN Cable for the Nationals games or have an independent arbitrator set the contract terms.

In the weeks before and after MLB’s September decision to move the Montreal Expos to Washington, MLB, the Orioles and Comcast discussed creating a regional sports network partially owned by Comcast and airing games of the Orioles, Nationals, Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals. Such a network would mirror Comcast-led operations in Philadelphia and Chicago.

But according to the Orioles’ FCC filing, Comcast sought at least 50 percent equity in that venture, far higher than its position in the Chicago and Philadelphia networks.

The Orioles spurned that proposal, instead negotiating with MLB to create the MASN framework in which their stake begins at 90 percent and drops no lower than 67 percent.

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