1M Comcast Subs Face C-SPAN2 Cutback

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About 1 million Comcast subscribers in the Washington, D.C., region could lose around-the-clock access to C-SPAN2 in the wake of the cable operator's decision to share the public-affairs channel with live coverage of Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals Major League Baseball games.

C-SPAN2, launched in January 1987, provides gavel-to-gavel coverage of the U.S. Senate to tens of millions of cable- and satellite-TV homes. Its sister channel, C-SPAN, has provided similar coverage of the U.S. House of Representatives since 1979. The C-SPAN brand is considered one of cable's crown jewels.

“At C-SPAN, we are not very happy that in this market -- the home of all of the staffers and senators and everyone who uses C-SPAN’s programming for their livelihood and their special interests -- we are not very happy about going off in this market, particularly for baseball games,” C-SPAN vice president of affiliate relations Peter Kiley said.

Under intense pressure from the Federal Communications Commission, Comcast last summer relented and agreed to carry Mid-Atlantic Sports Network in the homes of 2.2 million expanded-basic subscribers in a region that runs from Baltimore to Richmond, Va. Cable rates went up almost immediately by $2 per month to help recover the cost of the MASN contract.

MASN -- which has cable and satellite rights to Orioles and Nationals games -- needed a second channel because the two ballclubs play live at the same time on dozens of occasions during the April-October baseball season.

During the 2007 season, "MASN2" will air 63 Orioles and 62 Nationals games, replacing C-SPAN2’s live Senate and other public-affairs coverage. MASN2 is a so-called overflow channel, designed to accommodate overlapping live events but not to serve as a second 24-hour channel.

In an effort to address subscriber concerns, Comcast promised to air C-SPAN2 on a digital tier without interruption. Analog subscribers -- about one-half of the 2.2 million subscribers affected by Comcast's programming change -- may obtain digital boxes to receive C-SPAN2 at no extra programming charge.

“They will not need to change their level of service,” said Beth Bacha, vice president of communications for Comcast Cable’s Eastern division. Comcast will lease a digital set-top box “for at most $1,” she added.

C-SPAN2 was selected to share time with MASN2 mainly because Comcast assumed that C-SPAN2's most ardent viewers already subscribed to a digital tier and because live Senate proceedings had largely concluded before the start of evening baseball games, Bacha said.

Comcast’s digital subscribers won’t experience any service disruption, except for locating C-SPAN2 on their TVs with digital boxes. But the analog subscribers who lose Senate action to the national pastime will need to contact Comcast to obtain the equipment. If they do nothing, they can expect to lose about two-thirds of C-SPAN2 in primetime during the baseball season.

In a March 1 notice, Comcast told customers the programming changes would occur March 31. Although the notice included a Comcast phone number, it did not provide information on obtaining a digital box and accessing C-SPAN2 on a digital tier free-of-charge.

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