Saturday, April 8, 2006

Washington Nationals fans hoping for an end to the dispute that has prevented them from watching most of the team’s games this season should not expect a resolution anytime soon, a Congressional panel learned yesterday.

An official from Comcast Corp., the region’s largest cable provider, told the House Government Reform Committee that the company will not carry the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network unless its structure changed, and even said it would not carry games on a temporary basis while the two parties worked out a long-term solution.

“We cannot and should not put the games on,” Comcast senior vice president David Cohen said.

Comcast has about 1.3million subscribers in the region, and its refusal to carry MASN has left many fans unable to watch about 120 of the Nationals games.

Comcast’s refusal was met with frustration from lawmakers, who urged the company to put the interests of the fans first.

“I am disappointed that the sophisticated businessmen involved in this dispute have failed to strike a deal,” said committee chairman Tom Davis, Virginia Republican. “There should be enough money and enough good sense to make a deal work for everyone. The only people hurt by this dispute are the fans.”

Major League Baseball president Bob DuPuy and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who were instrumental in creating the network, also were asked to testify before the committee along with several local officials.

MASN was created in 2004 as part of a package by Major League Baseball to compensate Angelos for the Nationals’ move to the region. The Orioles own most of the network, with the Nationals claiming a 10 percent stake that will gradually increase to about 33 percent in future years. The Orioles also pay an annual rights fee to the Nationals of at least $20million. The network currently produces Nationals games and will begin producing Orioles games in 2007.

Comcast, which operates the competing Comcast SportsNet, sued MASN last year, arguing that it should have been given a chance to match the offer to broadcast Orioles games after this season. The claims were rejected twice by a judge, but the company is appealing the decision.

The cable company also has said that MASN’s asking price to carry the network — believed to be between $2 and $3 per subscriber — is too high, especially since the network has yet to roll out any programming other than baseball.

Angelos said MASN is charging less than what Comcast SportsNet charges, and is scheduled to debut round-the-clock programming in July. He bristled at the idea of giving up control of MASN, but suggested that Comcast SportsNet and MASN could merge operations.

“We’re pleased to talk about an amalgamation of the two systems,” said Angelos, who urged Comcast to carry games at least this season as part of a short-term solution. “That may be a long and difficult negotiation, but I think we can get there, assuming there is good faith on the side of Comcast.”

Lawmakers admitted they had little power to solve the dispute, but were surprised to learn that Comcast and MASN officials had never formally met to talk about their disagreements. House members urged the two parties to meet immediately and return back with a progress report within a month. They also suggested that DuPuy and a possible outside arbitrator should lead them to a resolution.

“We need to think outside the box, I think, to get this done,” Davis said.

Angelos said he would be open to third-party involvement. Cohen said Comcast would resist such a move, but that he would be open to any meetings with MASN and MLB officials.

Thursday, Comcast offered to carry Nationals games immediately if MLB and the Orioles agreed to scrap the current financial structure of MASN and allow networks to compete for the rights to broadcast games. It also offered to match the annual rights fee the Orioles pay to the Nationals.

But that suggestion, Angelos and DuPuy said, would represent a breach of contract between the Orioles and Major League Baseball, and would also violate contracts between MASN and the five distributors that currently carry the network.

MASN has distribution deals with DirecTV, Cox Communications in Fairfax County and Fredericksburg, RCN Cable, Charter Cable and Verizon’s FiOS television service.

Gary McCollum, region vice president of Cox Communications in Northern Virginia, said the company added MASN this season to keep customers happy, but that costs for subscribers likely will rise as a result. The company’s programming costs had been projected to increase 13 percent this year, but with the addition of MASN, those costs will rise 18 percent, he said.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the>Sports Page

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