In the face of growing outrage from Washington Nationals fans unable to watch the first two victories on television, baseball officials announced yesterday that the team's next nine games will be shown on WDCA-20, beginning with tonight's contest against the Florida Marlins.
In a conference call with District Mayor Anthony A. Williams and D.C. Council member Jack Evans, Major League Baseball President Robert A. Dupuy said that finalizing a TV schedule for the Nationals was a "top priority" for himself, Commissioner Bud Selig and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, Evans said.
"This is a new operation and we are working diligently to get as many games on the air as possible and as quickly as possible," Dupuy said in an interview.
Bob Whitelaw, who heads the Orioles-owned Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which in turn owns the rights to the Nationals games, said the run of nine consecutive Nationals games on television "is something we have been working on and it came together today."
The Nationals' debut, an 8-4 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday, was televised locally on Channel 20. But their victories over the Phillies on Wednesday and yesterday were not shown locally, angering many Washington fans and some local officials.
The situation has focused attention on the status of the regional sports network created by Major League Baseball and Angelos last week to broadcast Orioles and Nationals games. Under the terms of the deal, announced as part of a package that baseball negotiated for Angelos to compensate him for the Nationals' relocation to Washington, the Orioles will own 90 percent of the network this season, with baseball owning the rest. Baseball's share will increase over the next 20 years, but it will be capped at 33 percent.
Under the arrangement, 76 Nationals games this season will be broadcast on WDCA-20, a Fox-owned outlet, with some of those games being moved to WTTG-5, also owned by Fox. Whitelaw said Mid-Atlantic is talking to cable and satellite providers about carrying a package of the remaining Nationals games. He would not specify when a deal might be reached, although sources at Comcast said the cable company has had no contact with Mid-Atlantic since a courtesy meeting last week. Baseball officials said their intent was to televise at least 150 of the team's 162 games locally this season.
In addition to Comcast, other area cable companies include Time Warner, Charter Communications, Adelphia and Cox.
The Orioles have two years remaining on their contract with Comcast SportsNet to produce and televise about 80 Orioles games per season. Starting in 2007, Orioles games will be produced by Mid-Atlantic.
Baseball officials said the reason the Nationals' game Wednesday night was not broadcast in the Washington area was because the ESPN cable network has a guarantee that prevents over-the-air telecasts on that night. Teams can provide only local cable broadcasts on Wednesday nights under the league's broadcast rules.
Baseball officials said the Nationals' 5-4, extra-inning victory over the Phillies yesterday was not televised due to the game's 1:05 p.m. start. Afternoon games do not usually draw good ratings, the officials said.
Duffy Dyer, station manager of Channel 20, a UPN affiliate, said the station is reluctant to air Nationals games on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights because those evenings include some of UPN's most popular shows. Dyer said he recommended the Nationals' current television schedule on the station to Whitelaw.
"Those are some of the best nights we have," Dyer said. "We have made strong inroads on those nights."
Nationals fans posted angry rants yesterday on Internet message boards.