- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2012

Despite winning records this year that have delighted their long-suffering fans, it seems the Washington Nationals and the Baltimore Orioles still can’t get much respect — including from the federal government.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this month upheld an order from the Federal Communications Commission allowing Time Warner Cable Inc. to leave the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) and its sister station, MASN2, off its basic cable package in North Carolina.

And the FCC didn’t pull any punches in defending its reasoning to the court, justifying its order in part by noting that the two teams have been so bad so often recently that it was “not surprising” baseball fans in North Carolina would prefer to watch another club’s games.

The region, whose fans identify more with Atlanta than the District or Baltimore, is nevertheless considered by baseball officials to fall within the Washington/Baltimore market, so the Time Warner decision not to carry the stations prompted complaints of discrimination from MASN.

The ruling follows a lengthy legal battle and means that, because of Major League Baseball’s blackout restrictions that give priority to local broadcasters over national ones, most Nats and O’s fans in much of the Tar Heel State cannot watch their “home” teams live.

“Stephen Strasburg comes up [in the rotation], and it’s blacked out in a local area. There’s not much I can do,” said Dave Cameron of Winston-Salem, N.C., the managing editor of Fangraphs, a baseball stats site, who has written for the Wall Street Journal and ESPN. “Literally, the only way to watch these events is to find an illegal stream.”

He said MLBtv, an online-streaming package available for purchase from Major League Baseball, doesn’t work either because baseball does not provide the Web feed in local markets expecting that fans will be able to tune into the television broadcast.

“No matter what package you buy, they will black it out,” he said.

Mr. Cameron said that with the surprising success of the Orioles thus far this year, the situation has “absolutely” made his job more difficult.

“The Orioles are obviously one of the better stories for the season thus far, and Major League Baseball is making it exceedingly difficult for me to watch them,” he said. “If I want to write about an Orioles game, I have to do it a day or two later than everyone else.”

Battle in the courts

MASN is owned by both the Orioles and Nationals.

In 2005, it started televising Nationals game. In 2007, it added the Orioles to its schedule and unsuccessfully prodded Time Warner to carry the station on the analog tier of its cable package in North Carolina.

In 2008, an FCC arbitrator and the commission’s media bureau both ruled in favor of the network, but Time Warner appealed.

In 2010, the FCC reversed the two decisions, saying Time Warner provided “legitimate and nondiscriminatory” reasons for not carrying the stations on its analog tier in the state.

MASN took the fight to the courts, where the 4th Circuit issued its recent ruling.

The network said in a statement it was disappointed by the decision, adding that “we will continue to explore ways to bring our exciting lineup of live sports action to Time Warner Cable’s subscribers in North Carolina,” noting that viewers in the state can get the games via DirecTV, for example.

Luckily for Shawn Williams, who administers the “Orioles Nation of Central North Carolina” Facebook group, he falls into that category and watches the O’s every chance he gets.

“It’s my one little thing that I can come home and know, ‘Hey, my O’s are on, and I can watch them today,’” he said. “The way the economy is, people just don’t have a lot of money to be throwing around on things. When a carrier decides not to carry something, it’s unfortunate.”

Time Warner spokesman Keith Poston said he was gratified by the ruling and that the company’s decisions “were made for valid business reasons, and were in no way the result of improper discrimination against MASN.”

“We have always maintained that it made no sense to make almost all of our North Carolina customers pay for programming in which the overwhelming majority of them have minimal interest,” Mr. Poston said.

No love for Beltway baseball

To add insult to injury, the past seasons’ woes of each team were cataloged extensively in the arguments to point out the lack of a customer base in the state.

A survey by Time Warner that was quoted in the court papers asked 500 North Carolinians which sports teams they follow.

None mentioned the Nationals. Four mentioned the Orioles. And 25 other professional sports teams were mentioned more times than the Orioles.

In 2006, Tom Smith, a marketing executive for Time Warner’s cable systems in North Carolina, exchanged emails with Mickey Carter, the company’s director of programming. Mr. Smith complained that blackout rules precluding coverage of the Atlanta Braves was “a big sore spot” for the area systems.

“We are in the Baltimore footprint [designated by MLB] and have NO Baltimore fans to speak of,” he wrote. “There is a HUGE Atlanta fan base here, and we have no way to deliver what they want.”

A brief filed in court by the FCC said that in another email to Mr. Carter later that day, Mr. Smith expressed skepticism that the Orioles could “create a fan base” in North Carolina.

“[W]e’ve given them 30 years to do so. In Wilmington, we even started carrying the old Home Team Sports” — a network that previously televised Orioles games — “back in 1985,” yet the Orioles “have not ever been able to develop a following,” Mr. Smith said.

James Carr, counsel for the FCC, cited the Smith/Carter email exchange in a footnote in the brief, adding, “Unlike the Baltimore Orioles, the Atlanta Braves have been one of the most successful MLB franchises over the past two decades, winning 14 straight division titles (an MLB record) and a World Series championship. It is thus not surprising that North Carolinians prefer the Braves over the Orioles and Nationals.”

Mr. Carr also cited criticism from Carol Hevey, the Time Warner executive overseeing the company’s cable system in the state.

“Hevey noted that ‘when Orioles games were carried on [Fox Sports Net-South] in past years, ratings in North Carolina were low — considerably lower than ratings for [Atlanta] Braves games’ carried on FSN-South in North Carolina,” Mr. Carr wrote. “The poor performance of the Orioles and Nationals in recent years raised additional questions about the teams’ ability to spark fan interest in North Carolina. Hevey noted that the Orioles ‘have not reached the playoffs since 1997’ and (particularly at the time of the carriage discussions between TWC and MASN), the Nationals were ‘a new team without much of a following even in Washington, D.C.’ The Nationals have yet to enjoy a winning season since the team moved to Washington from Montreal in 2005.”

The Nats’ and Orioles’ impressive starts to the 2012 season notwithstanding, it’s doubly unfortunate for fans in the South who may be struggling financially, Mr. Williams said.

“It just seems the way life is right now, people keep getting so much taken away from them,” he said. “Regular people can’t catch a break. It makes it a depressing day [when] you take baseball away from someone.”

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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