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Comcast Presents Nats Baseball, Color Commentary by Kendel Ehrlich

Stadium lease--check.

Stadium design--check.

Groundbreaking ceremony--coming soon.

Team owner--coming soon. Really.

After many months of brutal backstabbing and other political delights, things are finally starting to come together for baseball in Washington. With one ginormous exception: The worst TV deal in professional sports.

The standoff between Peter Angelos' last weapon against Washington--his Mid-Atlantic Sports Network--and the folks at Comcast cable continues with no end in sight. Result: Most D.C. area viewers will get to see hardly any of the Nationals' 162 games this season. A dramatic cut in the number of games to be shown on broadcast TV, along with zero progress in getting the games on cable, means the team's attendance is virtually certain to slide. You can't build a fan base if people can't see the games and follow the team.

While the two big companies hold their collective noses and stamp their feet, the Nationals and their fans are getting a little more desperate to force some sort of deal. Last summer's fan-based grassroots movement hasn't shown any signs of life yet this season, but it's early.

So we're starting to see some agitation toward a political solution. Several Montgomery County residents have asked their county government, which licenses cable operators, to intercede. "Shouldn't the county cable commissions get together and tell Comcast they are failing to meet the needs of customers area-wide by refusing to air coverage of a matter that is of high interest to members of this community?" wrote one resident, John Vittone. "If Comcast said they refuse to carry C-Span, or NBC4, would Montgomery County let them do that?"

Such appeals have so far received polite demurrals. One Montgomery official, Keith Watkins of the Department of Technical Services, wrote that "Unfortunately, the County only has authority over the PEG (Public, Education and Local Government) channels. We have received a number of complaints regarding this issue, but we don't have the authority to require Comcast to carry that channel."

And in fact, few viewers would really want their county governments ruling over which channels cable operators should offer, as long as they offer the basic local channels and the public services.

But governments do regulate the cable industry and do have some powers of persuasion. Now state Delegate Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery) has stepped in, asking Gov. Bobby Golfclub to press Comcast to carry the Nats games. (Full text of Franchot's letter after the jump.)

Interestingly, Franchot does not mention the Ehrlich family's special ties to Comcast, where the governor's wife, Kendel, has her very own show.

Given that Comcast already pays Mrs. Ehrlich a nice salary, the company might wish to consider cutting a deal with Angelos to air the Nats games with the state's First Lady as color commentator. She'd certainly be far better than Ron Darling, the dumped and unlamented color man on the inaugural season's telecasts.

What will break the logjam? Money, of course. Angelos has apparently been wheeling and dealing enough to score a contract with Cox cable, adding it to the list of smaller providers that will carry this year's games. But this is about control of the sports TV market locally. In Comcast's view, Angelos is an unwanted interloper. Comast, after all, has enjoyed a near-total lock on local sports broadcasts, except for football.

In some cities, these cable stalemates have dragged on for years, but they've also been resolved quickly in some places. What it will take is a willingness on both sides to give up some of what they have--MASN's lock on the Nats' TV money and rights, and Comcast's control over the sports presented in the majority of local cable TV homes. Neither side is known for generosity of spirit. Only fan voices--and politicians' thundering threats--can bring this one home. The Ehrlichs, above all, seem rather well situated to apply some pressure, or does pressure move only in one direction?

The Honorable Robert L. Ehrlich
Governor
State House
Annapolis, Maryland 21401

Dear Governor Ehrlich:

As a Washington-area lawmaker and resident, and as an increasingly frustrated baseball fan, I am writing to request your assistance on a matter of great importance.

In a few weeks, the Washington Nationals will begin their second season of play in our Nation's Capital. Families throughout the region (it is estimated that nearly three-quarters of the team's fan base hails from the Maryland and Virginia suburbs) will head to RFK Stadium and watch the Nats try to improve on that unforgettable summer of 2005. Others will listen in on the radio, and some hardy fans will even follow the games on the Internet!

For the second consecutive year, however, the 1.3 million Comcast subscribers in our area will be unable to see Washington Nationals games on television. Comcast continues to refuse to carry Nationals games despite numerous requests from the new Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), which will broadcast nearly all of the games this year. While MASN has entered into deals with smaller cable companies, as well as DirecTV, Comcast obviously remains the dominant service provider in this region.

As a result, most Nats fans in Maryland will be unable to enjoy one of the most timeless joys of summer -- the opportunity to end a long day by relaxing in one's favorite chair, with their beverage of choice, and rooting for their hometown team. It is one provided as a matter of routine to fans in every other Major League Baseball city, yet Comcast has no qualms with denying it to a fan base that already suffered through more than three decades without baseball in Washington.

I am concerned that Comcast's short-sighted and unresponsive approach will do considerable harm to the long-term viability of a franchise that needs more, not less, public exposure in their new market. Speaking as a longtime fellow Orioles fan, I am also concerned that it will diminish prospects for a friendly rivalry between the two franchises, one which could heighten rooting interest in both teams and generate a true sense of civic passion in their respective regions.

While you and I may differ on many issues of the day, we share an abiding love for the National Pastime and a respect for its fans. It is in that spirit that I ask for your assistance in this matter. Specifically, I would ask that you consider "going to bat" for Maryland's baseball fans with the appropriate decision makers at Comcast. Please remind them that an entire generation of fans in Prince George's and Montgomery Counties grew up without Major League Baseball in the region, and let them know that it is inexcusable to deprive them --and their children --of the chance to see their own Washington Nationals play in 2006. I eagerly await your reply, and appreciate your consideration.

See you at the ballpark!

Sincerely,

Peter V.R. Franchot

By Marc Fisher |  March 16, 2006; 10:27 AM ET
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Comments

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Comcast is not allowing MASN on its cable systems because Comcast does not want another network competing with its own Comcast SportsNet. Yet, Time Warner cable, which owns CNN, carries Fox News Channel and MSNBC on its cable systems. To me, the refusal of Comcast in this situation represents a violation of federal anti-trust laws. Has the Justice Department opened an investigation on this matter? They should. If Comcast isn't carrying MASN because the fees proposed by MASN are too high - that's one thing. But, all indications point to Comcast not wanting competition for its regional sports network.

Posted by: Frustrated Nats Fan | March 16, 2006 10:54 AM

And those promos for MASN on the radio! Who in the world thought it would be a good idea to pronounce it "MASS-IN"? Ugh.

MASN is nothing but bad ideas anywhere you look.

I hope and pray that the new Nationals owner's checklist looks something like this:

1 - Step up and cover all cost overruns (if any)

2 - Dedicate money to a great exterior on the new stadium

3 - Sue Angelos and MLB for the broadcast rights!

Posted by: dcvoterboy | March 16, 2006 11:14 AM

Verizon Fios TV, which carries MASN and Nats games, was just approved by Howard County, the first Maryland Fios TV Franchise approved in Maryland. If the Montgomery County Government would act quickly to approve Verizon Fios TV for Montgomery County, then Comcast would have some real competition and be forced to negotiate a settlement in good faith with MASN. Many parts of Bethesda and Silver Spring are already wired for Fios, so government approval is all that is needed to get the ball rolling. Upon approval in Howard County, Verizon Fios TV immediately started signing up subscribers. A real alternative to Comcast is the PUSH that Comcast needs to get this dispute resolved now!

Posted by: Howparlaw | March 16, 2006 11:19 AM

Marc, I'm old enough to have enjoyed growing up as television was born and grew up with me. I've great memories of sitting in my bedroom or out on our porch listening to the games and keeping score along with the announcers. Baseball has always been defined for me by the voices of the teams. Sad to say, I find regular games on tv boring most of the time and they tend to lull me to sleep. Give me the portability and imagination a good radio announcer can bring to the game.

Posted by: Dana Gunnison | March 16, 2006 11:45 AM

Marc, glad to see you're off the "blame Angelos" bandwagon on this...Comcast's decision not to carry MASN is clearly the issue. It's funny to see how Comcast thinks that their sports network start-ups in other cities (i.e. the Mets network in NYC area) deserve to be included on the cable dial, but they've determined that Washington-Baltimore does not merit a second cable/sat local sports network.

Comcast is clearly to blame on this matter, plain and simple.

Posted by: JF in DC | March 16, 2006 11:55 AM

I've been waging my own ineffective campaign against Comcast for quite some time. I called Customer service to ask for an email address so I could grumble by email since letter writing to Comcast SportsNet brings no response. Voice mail messages to what a recorded message identifies as "the executive line" remain unanswered. The email message was returned as undeliverable. I did receive a return telephone call from Comcast SportsNet suggesting I contact Comcast in Rockville. Here's my undeliverable rant:

I was given your email address by a member of your Customer Service staff whom I will not identify since you will probably fire that person for gross disregard of Comcast policy, more specifically, the one that prohibits trying to be helpful. If I were: (1) a man of principle, and (2) alone with no family, I would drop your service in a heartbeat and get Direct TV. As Tom Boswell of the Washington Post so eloquently wrote: "Comcast is just a greedy de facto monopolist that wants to bully its way into continued domination of this RSN market. The hell with 'em."

I have tried on several occasions to communicate with ComcastSportsNet and get no meaningful answer. Nevertheless, it is heartening to read that I am not alone in my disgust toward MLB, Comcast, MASN, peter angelos, and anything or anybody else who contributes to Washington-area baseball fans not being able to see more than 40 Nationals games on TV in the coming baseball season. I have read many comments from columnists and posters on chats and on-line discussions that support my feelings of disappointment and disgust.

Since I have a "relationship" with Comcast (my wife reminds me frequently that we pay Comcast about $60 monthly), I figured that's where I had my best shot at getting some answers. The fact that I am a long-time paying customer is clearly not sufficient reason for Comcast to provide any meaningful information other than an email to me from Comcast SportsNet advising that:

Currently Comcast Cable does carry all Nationals games that air locally on WDCA UPN 20 and WTTG or national games that might appear on Fox or ESPN. Comcast does not carry Nationals games that appear through the MASN network itself, because that network was created as a result of breach of contract by the Orioles with our network.

I have not had a response to my October 8, 2005 email to wherein I said:

Please give the name and contact information of somebody from the Comcast "family" who is willing to educate me regarding Comcast's continued refusal to televise Nationals games on MASN. To my uneducated self it appears that Comcast is in a battle with the evil peter angelos and for some reason has decided to take it out on me, an innocent bystander, and other Montgomery County residents, by refusing to make Nationals game on MASN available.

I am a Comcast paying customer. I deserve something better than "Comcast does not carry Nationals games that appear through the MASN network itself, because that network was created as a result of a breach of contract by the Orioles with our network."

I didn't breach any contract with Comcast. Why is Comcast taking this out on me??

Your virtual Cable monopoly in Montgomery County has resulted in your treating long-time paying customers poorly, to say the least. We paying customers support Comcast and deserve much better than you are giving us. Your suit vs. angelos has been thrown out of court. Get yourselves some better lawyers, give me some answers, or just stop this nonsense and GIVE ME THE NATIONALS.

Posted by: Glen Echo | March 16, 2006 12:09 PM

Just get DirecTV.

Posted by: andrew | March 16, 2006 12:48 PM

Not sure they'll look here, but for the person from today's chat asking about the streaming jukebox website, another one is www.pandora.com.

People need to lobby their local governments to allow contracts with other cable companies. Verizon FiOS is starting to expand in NoVA and does carry MASN - see if they are becoming available in your town. Falls Church City residents can currently choose from RCN (StarPower), Cox, and Verizon FiOS, so I can't believe cities are limited to choosing only one cable provider.

Posted by: misschatter | March 16, 2006 1:37 PM

Maybe MASN should just buy airtime on the MoCo public access channel then.

Even better, local governments should offer to carry the games on the gov channels. Why do I need the Takoma Park channel when I don't live there anyway? (The TP folks can have the Rockville gov channel as well). Anything to spite the evil Comcast monopoly!

I've always wondered if the reason Comcast hasn't plugged anything into channel 12 was to keep it open for Nats games.

Posted by: tallbear | March 16, 2006 2:32 PM

None of this addresses the issue that the Nats' chief local rival, the O's, owns 75%-90% of the Nats' broadcast rights --FOREVER.

That is like the Republicans owning the Democrats' TV rights, or FOX news owning CBS news and carrying its broadcasts. The O's will always be better promoted and championed, and the Nats won't be able to ever walk away and have open competition for a better TV deal that they own outright -- even if Nats viewership ends up being much greater than the O's audience.

This can effect the Nats' bottom line and their ability to be competitive some day, especially as more and more big-market teams are owing their own networks outright (e.g., Yankees) or in partnership with cable companies (e.g., Mets). The problem is that the new Nats owner probably can never sue, because it will likely be in the purchase agreement that he must accept the TV deal -- take it or leave it. THAT is what we should revolt about -- the Comcast-MASN issue goes away after this season, as the Comcast-O's deal ends. Full disclodure: I have RCN, so I get to see nearly all the games.

Posted by: TheBIGissue | March 16, 2006 2:48 PM

When some of us said the DC Council should condition the stadium deal -- this is back in the fall of 2004 -- on not giving control of TV rights to the Orioles (something that was being rumored even back then), we were told any such condition would lead MLB to go elsewhere.

Now you expect the new owner to sue his new MLB partners to somehow have the deal abrogated? Good luck.

Posted by: Meridian | March 16, 2006 6:06 PM

Tempest in a teapot. This problem will be resolved in about two weeks, once there is an owner for the team. MLB has proven in its management of the Nationals that it doesn't know how to run a baseball team.

Posted by: Kalorama Kat | March 17, 2006 9:42 AM

So now Gov Ehrlich is "Governor Golfclub" what happened to "haircut"?

Posted by: steve | March 17, 2006 11:57 AM

A year ago I called Comcast and asked for MASN to be included in my package so I could enjoy watching Nationals ballgames. Comcast refused so accomodate me, one of customers. So I told Comcast to come pick up their cable boxes and shut off my service.

I switched to RCN and couldn't be a happier former Comcast customer. Comcast is only going to respond to one thing, money. If a service provider isn't providing you the service you request and pay for, why continue to do business with such an outfit?

If a store owner treated you, the customer, poorly would you continue shopping at such a store? Of course not so why continue buying cable television from a provider who has no respect for their customers requests.

Stop buying cable television from Comcast. Switch to a provider that gives you want you want. Only then will Comcast get the message when they see their bottom line is affected negatively by keeping Nats fans from enjoying games on television.

Posted by: Keith | March 17, 2006 3:52 PM

What can we do? How can we go to bat for the Nats? Can we join together and do something against Comcast? How about a rally????

Posted by: Art | March 17, 2006 10:05 PM

So...in a world where we are invading counries because we "kind of feel like it", people don't have health care, your phone can be wiretapped "just because", etc... What works people up to outrage?

They can't watch adult males hit a ball with a stick and then run in a circle on TV.

Pathetic.

Posted by: Unh | March 17, 2006 10:53 PM

Unh, just because people are upset here does not mean that people are not upset about other issues. I'm sure that remarks about Iraq, privacy, etc. are discussed in proper mediums. This is an article about baseball. Why are you here if you do not care about it???

Posted by: Huh | June 12, 2006 10:53 AM

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