Decision Time for MASN in Comcast Flap


Given all of the rumors about the impending departure of slugging left fielder Alfonso Soriano, fans of the Washington Nationals have more than a passing interest in Major League Baseball’s July 31 trading deadline. But many fans of the ballclub also have Aug. 4 circled on their calendars.

That’s when Mid-Atlantic Sports Network -- which has been in a two-season dispute with Comcast over carrying the service, which televises Nationals games -- must decide whether to take its program-access complaint against the cable operator to an arbiter or a Federal Communications Commission administrative law judge.

As part of its July 21 order outlining the OK for Comcast’s and Time Warner Inc.’s acquisition of Adelphia Communications, the FCC said MASN had 10 days to take its complaint against Comcast to an arbiter. Moreover, FCC chairman Kevin Martin circulated a proposal, pending approval by the FCC commissioners, in which MASN could avail itself of an agency administrative law judge by the same date.

As of press time Friday, MASN had not yet made its call on which arbitration avenue it will pursue, according to spokesman Todd Webster.

“It is no longer a question of whether Comcast is going to carry MASN, but when and at what price,” Webster said, noting that the regional sports network this week sent term sheets and tried to reach executives at Comcast and Time Warner Cable in order to again facilitate a carriage deal. As of early Friday afternoon, he added, he had not heard that MASN had made contact with the distributors.

Through deals that sources said average around $1.35 per subscriber, per month, MASN counts 2 million subscribers in its territory via deals with DirecTV, Cox Communications, RCN, Charter Communications and Verizon Communications. However, it has big holes in its distribution lineup with Time Warner in North Carolina and with Comcast in the nation’s capital.

Comcast SportsNet carries Baltimore Orioles MLB games, but the club’s 10-year contract with that RSN ends after this season. Next season, Orioles owner Peter Angelos will move the team’s rights to MASN.

Angelos gained Nationals TV rights as part of the deal with MLB that converted the Montreal Expos into the Nationals before the 2005 season and, thus, stepped into a market that had been the province of the Orioles.

Comcast officials declined comment, offering instead this statement: “Our decision with respect to carriage of MASN -- a part-time, overpriced network -- is based on the best interest of our customers and not on the ownership interest of MASN. The truth is that the vast majority of our programming, including the vast majority of our sports programming, is unaffiliated, so the MASN complaint is demonstrably false. We believe that any program-carriage proceeding on this matter will conclude that the MASN complaint is wholly without merit.”

MASN decried Comcast’s “overpriced” characterization. Webster cited a May 3 letter from DirecTV executive vice president of program acquisitions, business and legal affairs Dan Fawcett to Rep. Thomas Davis III (R-Va.) in which the DBS executive wrote that after surveying “nine different RSNs across the country, we found that MASN was the least expensive.”

For its part, Time Warner said it was open to trying to make something happen before the arbitration deadline.

“We will welcome the opportunity to continue discussions with MASN,” a Time Warner spokesman said. “At this time, we think it’s premature for the network to invoke arbitration.”