Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Luckily for the region’s 1.3 million Comcast viewers, the Washington Nationals’ season opener Monday was televised on ESPN, so the spectacle of most of a major metropolitan area being unable to view its team’s first game in 2006 was averted. But since only 40 of this season’s 162 matchups will appear on national broadcasts by ESPN and Fox or locally on WDCA-Channel 20 because Comcast and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos still haven’t solved their television-rights dispute, the Washington area is in danger of repeating last year’s blackout debacle.

No wonder Rep. Tom Davis, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, has made heavy-handed threats against Comcast. No well-functioning market would let this happen, especially not in a wealthy, baseball-receptive area like ours, where advertising revenue and viewership should be among the most favorable and lucrative anywhere in the country.

There are more people to blame than Philadelphia-based Comcast, of course. At least the lumbering cable giant occasionally behaves like a competitive company operating in a competitive market. The same cannot be said of the Angelos operation. Mr. Angelos reacted with horror the moment the idea for a Washington ballclub emerged. He immediately began trying to strangle the team in its crib. When Mr. Angelos managed to wangle 90 percent ownership of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network — the entity to broadcast Orioles and Nationals games — it was clear that he sought advantage even if it would mean crippling the Nationals financially into the indefinite future.

The D.C. Council also bears some responsibility for this mess. The council has tripped over itself repeatedly to lard Major League Baseball with favors. No wonder Mr. Angelos and Comcast think that brinksmanship and bravado will work. Their experience with city government shows that anyone from MLB who bargains hard enough for long enough will get what he wants.

But it’s also worth pointing out that Congress’ unique antitrust exemption for baseball allows wide latitude for the type of anti-consumer behavior these companies and individuals are currently inflicting upon us. What kind of competitive industry fails to give a market of 1.3 million viewers home access to the new Major League ballclub? The answer is none; the rewards are too great.

We’re no fans of Mr. Davis’ approach, which could well strip Comcast of revenues it is entitled to. But nothing else has worked. We’d prefer the target of congressional ire to be MLB, Mr. Angelos and their intensely anti-competitive, anti-consumer behavior. But we’re not holding our breath.

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