- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2006

The Federal Communications Commission yesterday passed a measure allowing the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network to enter into binding arbitration with Comcast Corp. to resolve a dispute that has left many cable customers unable to watch most Washington Nationals games.

The FCC approved the move as a condition tied to its approval of a deal between Comcast and Time Warner to buy the assets of bankrupt Adelphia Communications Corp. It also ruled Comcast and Time Warner must make their regional sports networks, such as Comcast SportsNet, available to other cable and satellite providers.

Comcast has refused to carry MASN, the Nationals’ television home, because of a dispute between Comcast SportsNet and Orioles owner Peter Angelos over the rights to broadcast Orioles games. The cable company has also argued MASN is asking too much to carry the network, especially because it offers no programming other than baseball. The battle has left Comcast customers without access to Nationals games over the last two seasons.

“Protracted negotiations and legal wrangling between the parties somehow have failed to produce televised coverage of 75 percent of this season’s games for the 1.3 million Comcast subscribers in the Washington D.C. market,” commission member Robert McDowell said.

He said the ruling will “provide for a timely and long-overdue decision that will break the long- standing impasse between MASN and Comcast. One way or the other, a decision will be made.”

MASN, which had petitioned the FCC numerous times over the last year, viewed the possibility of arbitration as a victory.

“This is a great day for sports fans in Washington and Baltimore,” MASN spokesman Todd Webster said. “We applaud the FCC for standing up for sports fans and the public good. This is a huge step.”

MASN representatives said they believe they have an edge during an arbitration proceeding, because they would point out five other cable providers carry the network on terms identical to those offered to Comcast.

“We think Comcast would be in an awfully bad position,” said Hal Singer, an economist who helped write MASN’s complaint to the FCC. “We’re not far from carriage.”

A Comcast spokesman praised the FCC for approving the Adelphia acquisition, but said the company was still reviewing the commission’s condition regarding MASN and declined further comment.

People following the ruling yesterday said they believe the FCC allows Comcast and MASN a short period before arbitration could be requested. But it was still unclear last night how long that period would be.

MASN is available in this region on Cox, Charter and RCN cable, plus DirecTV satellite and Verizon’s FiOS television service. That distribution reaches about 2 million households — about half of what MASN could reach if Comcast also carried the network.

MASN is scheduled to air both Nationals and Orioles games beginning in 2007. The network, which is owned largely by Angelos, was created with the assistance of Major League Baseball in early 2005 as part of an arrangement allowing the Nationals and Orioles to share a broadcast territory. The Orioles had been awarded the exclusive television rights to the Washington area in 1981.

Angelos owns about 90 percent of MASN, but is paying the Nationals $20 million in rights fees this year. The Nationals ownership stake will eventually increase to 33 percent.

Meanwhile yesterday, MASN revealed it will begin offering around-the-clock programming beginning July 31, with details to be revealed soon.

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