- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2005

Last fall Major League Baseball worried about maintaining competitive impetus for the Baltimore Orioles when it began negotiating a compensation package that included a regional sports network bundling the local TV rights of the Orioles and Washington Nationals.

Now Orioles owner Peter Angelos has come out swinging like few ever expected.

Angelos and the Orioles last week significantly heightened their TV power struggle with Comcast Corp. by filing a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission arguing the cable giant violates federal rules by refusing to carry the Orioles-controlled Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) on its systems. The move immediately shifted the club’s position in the legal fight from defender to aggressor, and challenges decades of FCC history against intervening in private contractual disputes.

“It’s definitely going to be an uphill fight for him,” said Phil Hochberg, a Rockville attorney well versed in FCC law pertaining to sports broadcasting.

Comcast, of course, agrees with that sentiment. Its Comcast SportsNet (CSN) subsidiary sued the Orioles in April, saying the club’s plans to move its local pay TV games from CSN to MASN violates its right to match contract terms. In the eyes of Comcast, the petition to the FCC is simply another instrument Angelos is using to circumvent that pact.

“MASN is using some very important public policy to support its breach of contract,” said Comcast spokesman D’Arcy Rudnay.

But a closer look at the petition, which is being branded as everything from clever to desperate by the Washington legal community, suggests there may be compelling reasons for the commission to act upon the Orioles’ request and compel Comcast to start carrying MASN.

FCC rules prohibit cable and satellite operators from deciding which channels to carry based on their corporate affiliation. And beyond Comcast’s well-documented frustration with the Orioles and its opposition of a second regional sports network for Washington and Baltimore, the company has yet to explain fully why it will not cut a short-term deal with MASN to show the Nationals while it litigates the CSN lawsuit.

“The [CSN] lawsuit relates to the production and exhibition rights for Orioles games beginning in the 2007 season and has absolutely nothing to do with the display of Nationals games for the 2005 season,” the Orioles’ FCC filing reads. “Indeed, nothing in the contract that is the subject of the Maryland state court litigation concerns or contemplates the television rights to Nationals games, and the Nationals in fact did not exist as a Washington franchise in 1996 when that contract was first entered into.”

If nothing else, the Orioles have gone to extraordinary lengths to show skeptical Nationals fans that they, too, want to see both teams’ TV games distributed as broadly as possible. To be certain, Angelos is not acting out of altruism but rather financial self interest because he needs to recoup the $20million annual rights fee MASN has guaranteed the Nationals. But the FCC filing still shows action to back up three months of pro-Nationals talk from MASN executives.

Furthermore, the petition responds to Comcast’s assertion that the development of MASN would create a de facto “Angelos tax” that would raise monthly cable and satellite TV bills by $2 to $3. The Orioles have offered Comcast the same contract terms DirecTV and RCN Cable have for distributing MASN and alternately propose to forward the compensation issue to binding independent arbitration.

“This looks like a good case on its face, but it depends on how good the facts are,” said John Janka, a District-based communications lawyer.

But even if Angelos is right, and even if he succeeds in at last getting the Nationals carried on the region’s dominant cable provider, he’ll still almost certainly be vilified in the Washington area. Angelos has yet to apologize for or even recant his stunningly ill-considered remarks last year in which he said “there are no real baseball fans in D.C. That’s a fiction.” And each new step in the Orioles-Comcast fight and every strong turnout at RFK Stadium for the Nationals has prompted local radio hosts to replay that sound bite and resume their verbal body blows against Angelos.

In the meantime, however, the public outcry is not directed foremost at Angelos but rather at simply seeing the Nationals on TV. That furor hit another peak last week when an ESPN regional telecast of Washington’s series finale at Anaheim was blacked out because of MLB’s existing broadcasting rules protecting local telecasts. The local fan frustration will only increase should the Nationals continue their impressive and improbable run atop the National League East.

“Don’t underestimate public pressure to bring about some type of resolution here,” Janka said. “We’ve seen many times before examples of these bitter cable disputes coming to a solution very quickly. I think the FCC will first try to knock their heads together and get it done through a settlement. There’s a business solution out there definitely waiting to be found.”

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