Cable Operators

O’s-Nats Net Could Club Comcast

4/03/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

Talk about flipping the batting order: In what could loom as the next big battle over regional sports networks, Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals and the Baltimore Orioles are expected to team up to start their own RSN in 2007, potentially leaving Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic without significant summer programming.

Major League Baseball, which owns the Washington Nationals — formerly the Montreal Expos — last Thursday agreed to form a “joint venture” with the Baltimore Orioles that will protect the Orioles from any “adverse effects” of having a new team enter into their TV market.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that those protections include the creation of a jointly owned regional sports network to be created in 2007 that would include both Orioles and Nationals telecasts. The Orioles, which currently distribute 87 regular-season games on CSN Mid-Atlantic through a carriage deal that expires in 2006, have made noise in the past about starting their own network.

The creation of a new baseball-oriented network turn the tables on the MSO, which in the last year has siphoned off the rights to pro sports teams in Chicago and Sacramento to launch startup RSNs in those respective areas.

A Comcast Corp. spokesman confirmed that the MSO met Thursday morning with MLB and Orioles officials, but said no decisions regarding its future moves have been made.

“We want to see what MLB, the Nationals and the Orioles have agreed to, said Comcast spokesman David Nevins. “After we see what they’ve agreed to, we’ll have more to say.”

Representatives from Major League Baseball, the Orioles and the Nationals did not return calls by press time.

A new regional sports network could deal a major blow to Comcast, which dominates the mid-Atlantic regional sports marketplace.

The network holds rights to all the major pro sports teams in the area, including the National Basketball Association’s Washington Wizards and the National Hockey League’s Washington Capitals.

While the Nationals are working toward a regional sports network in 2007, it’s unclear how many games from its 2005 inaugural season will air on cable. The Post reports the team has agreements to air 76 of their games over local broadcast stations WTTG and WDCA, but does not have a cable distribution deal.

One option is to reach a carriage deal with Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic. Sources close to the regional have intimated that the network could accommodate a number of Nationals games this season, while not adversely affecting its Orioles telecasts.

OPENING DAY SHUTOUT?

Elsewhere in regional sports network news, Time Warner Cable customers in the New York area are in danger of missing New York Mets pitcher Pedro Martinez’s scheduled debut on April 4 as neither Time Warner Cable nor Cablevision Systems Corp. appear willing to play ball with each other to end their current carriage dispute.

At press time, spokesmen for the parties said that no talks were scheduled in an effort to return carriage of Cablevision’s Madison Square Garden Network and FSN New York to Time Warner’s 2.3 million subscribers in time for MSGN’s April 4 Mets-Cincinnati Reds opening day telecast.

On March 8, Cablevision pulled the signal for the two networks, as well as for Cablevision’s Metro Channels and three Fox College Sports channels, after it failed to renew a distribution deal with the Time Warner.

The blackout has already wiped out MSGN telecasts of New York Knicks NBA games.

At issue is Time Warner’s reluctance to pay a combined $4 per month fee for MSGN, FSN New York, FCS and the MetroChannels. Cablevision wants to turn the negotiations over to an arbitrator, while Time Warner feels that binding arbitration would set a bad precedent for the cable industry.

Time Warner has replaced MSGN and FSN New York with NBA TV and College Sports Television, respectively. In addition, Time Warner said it will provide $2 per month in rebates to subscribers while the networks are off.

September