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Nats TV Feud Might Be Bound For the Hill

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 27, 2006

A top-ranking congressman said yesterday that Congress will intervene in an impasse that threatens to keep most Washington Nationals games off the region's largest cable provider during the upcoming season.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the Government Reform Committee, warned that he would hold hearings on the matter unless the cable company, Comcast Corp., agrees to broadcast more games during the season that begins next week. The company plans to air fewer than a quarter of the games.

"This is an insult to the fans," Davis said in front of RFK Stadium, where elected officials from across the region lashed out at Comcast.

Maryland Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery) said congressional pressure would ultimately persuade Comcast to air the games.

"I think the hammer is the United States Congress," said Franchot, a candidate for Maryland comptroller. "They will force Comcast to yield."

The 1.3 million Comcast viewers in the region have been unable to watch most of the games on their cable channels because of a bitter dispute between the cable giant and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos. Major League Baseball awarded the television rights to Angelos to win his support for moving the Montreal Expos to Washington.

"We share and understand the frustration about the Nationals TV rights and believe that the current TV schedule is a direct and predicable result of awarding the TV rights to Mr. Angelos," D'Arcy Rudnay, vice president of communications for Comcast, said in a brief statement. "Comcast sought to negotiate a deal with MLB that would guarantee the availability of all Nationals games to Washington fans and offered to pay more for the television rights than Mr. Angelos."

Todd Webster, a spokesman for the Orioles television network, Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, blamed Comcast for the impasse.

"MASN has made four separate offers to Comcast, but they refused to even talk," Webster said. "MASN would love to be on Comcast starting tomorrow."

Davis said there was enough blame to go around. He added that Major League Baseball would also be held responsible for finding a solution to the impasse. "Major League Baseball can't walk away from this," Davis said. "They created this situation, and they need to do something about it."

Rich Levin, an MLB spokesman, said he was unaware of Davis's remarks and could not comment.

Comcast viewers will be able to watch 40 of the 162 games in the season because those games will air on national telecasts by ESPN or Fox or locally on WDCA (Channel 20). Philadelphia-based Comcast has refused to carry the rest of the games while its lawsuit against the Orioles television network winds through the courts. Other cable providers are airing Mid-Atlantic Sports Network games.

The cable giant is contending in its lawsuit that Major League Baseball and the Orioles unfairly took its rights to carry the Baltimore team's games. The lawsuit was dismissed by a Montgomery County judge, but Comcast is appealing.

Some of the elected officials who directed their ire at Comcast yesterday said they were focusing their energies on the cable giant because it is the only party that can resolve the problem now.

"You can't change history regardless of who is right or who is wrong," said U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.). "So now it has to be up to Comcast to swallow a bitter pill for the sake of the fans."

Davis said his staff planned to meet with officials from Comcast, Major League Baseball and the Orioles in the coming days to try to resolve the problem. But he said congressional hearings might be necessary if informal talks don't work.

He said legislation was unlikely but noted that Comcast and Major League Baseball frequently have business that comes before Congress. "No one is threatening a quid pro quo or anything like that," he said, "but good relations are important."

Standing alongside the politicians in the cool afternoon air yesterday, Eddie Fowler waved a red-and-blue sign that attacked Comcast and read, "Free Our Nats."

"Comcast is a billion-dollar crybaby," said Fowler, 46, a construction worker from Greenbelt. "They are trying to make more money, and who pays? Us, the fans."

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