Three representatives from the Washington suburbs have asked the FCC to make Comcast's purchase of some of Adelphia (it is divvying up the bankrupt operator's systems with Time Warner) contingent on submitting to binding arbitration on the issue of airing Washington Nationals baseball games.
The issue has been the subject of congressional hearings over Comcast's decision not to carry the Mid Atlantic Sports Network, which has rights to the games, on its area cable systems.
The FCC is expected to approve the Adelphia break-up by the end of the month, but not without some conditions, the legislators hope.
Rep. Republican Tom Davis of Virgina and Democrats Jim Moran (Va.) and Albert Wynn (Md.) say that "[r]equiring the two sides to enter into binding arbitration would "address both the concern of lack of televised exposure of the Nationals from a fan's perspective, and the concern of the significant expenditure of public funds by the District of Columbia in the hope that a successful team will spur urban revitalization efforts in the Nations' Capital."
It would be unusual to force Comcast to carry the regional sports network, which it is otherwise under no obligation to do, but with over a million Washington residents, including some legislators, unable to see the home team's pro baseball game, the Congressmen are trying to use what leverage they can.
The majority of Washington Nationals baseball games are not available to over a million Washington area Comcast cable customers and legislators have apparently gotten an earful from constituents. Davis is chairman of the Congressional committee that oversees Washington.
In a large nutshell the contentious and complicated fight boils down to this. In order to get Orioles Owner Peter Angelos to agree to allow a baseball team in Washington that could siphon fans from his nearby team, he was allowed to buy the Nationals TV rights and created a regional sports network, Mid Atlantic Sports Network, to carry them.
But he also decided to move the Orioles off Comcast's sports network to MASN in 2007, when Comcast's 10-year contract expires. Comcast doesn't want to lose the Orioles, says the move violates its contractual right to first refusal, and has chosen not to carry MASN or the nationals games.
At a hearing on the issue in April, Comcast proposed that Major League Baseball and Angelos return control of the National's TV rights to the team, which could then let all interested parties, including MASN and Comcast, negotiate for rights, but that didn't fly.
The text of the legislative trio's letter follows:
The Honorable Kevin J. Martin
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20554
Re: Adelphia/Time Warner/Comcast Transaction
MB Docket No. 05-192
Dear Chairman Martin:
The proposed acquisition of Adelphia Cable by Comcast Communications and Time Warner pending before the Commission provides an opportunity to address a major concern we have about carriage of the Washington Nationals baseball games on Comcast cable systems in the Washington, D.C. area. As you know, a controversy between Comcast and the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) is preventing 1.3 million Comcast subscribers in this area from viewing 75 percent of this season's Nationals games.
We suggest that any Commission approval of the Adelphia merger be conditioned on requiring Comcast and MASN to submit to binding arbitration to resolve the Nationals carriage controversy. This would address both the concern of lack of televised exposure of the Nationals from a fan's perspective, and the concern of the significant expenditure of public funds by the District of Columbia in the hope that a successful team will spur urban revitalization efforts in the Nations' Capital.
This issue is also subject to a complaint, In the Matter of TCR Sports Broadcasting Holding, L.L.P., v. Comcast Corporation, that was filed on June 14, 2005 with the Commission. The complainant, the holder of the rights to the Nationals games, alleges that Comcast is in violation of Section 616 of the Communications Act of 1934 and Section 76.1301 of the Commission's rules by refusing to televise Nationals games. TCR seeks relief in the form of a Commission order that Comcast carry the Nationals games on its cable systems under the same terms and conditions as other multichannel video programming distributors.
The controversy between Comcast and MASN raises additional questions about the posture of Comcast relating to regional sports programming and the resultant adverse effect on the availability of sports programming to cable subscribers throughout the country. Requiring the parties to submit to arbitration in this instance would be a first step by the Commission to address the impact of potential restrictions on the availability of regional sports programming by major cable operators.
Thank you for considering our concerns and proposal for resolution of the standoff between Comcast and MASN.