SBJ/November 14 - 20, 2005/Media

Net delays 24-hour programming

The Mid-Atlantic Sports Network has delayed plans to begin 24-hour programming by at least six months, adding another layer of uncertainty surrounding the Washington Nationals.

Peter Angelos’ Baltimore Orioles and
MASN are locked in a legal battle
with Comcast.

MASN, which launched in April airing Nationals games as its only programming, intended to add a full slate of studio shows, features and other live sports by March 2006 to create a rival to Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic. But with MASN and its majority owner, the Baltimore Orioles, still locked in a fractious legal battle with Comcast Corp., the 24-hour programming is now on hold until either September 2006 or March 2007. The channel is currently dark and will not reactivate until spring training.

“This is a reaction to what the distributors have been asking for,” said Bob Whitelaw, MASN general manager. “Right now, their preference is for [Nationals] games only. We’re trying to get as widely distributed as possible, so the tack we’re taking right now is to be flexible as possible. If the demand for 24/7 heightens, we could ramp back up that schedule.”

MASN’s abbreviated schedule, however, is not in keeping with other regional sports networks such as YES and Altitude, which began with full programming schedules as a direct means to solidify their existence. SportsNet New York will similarly launch in the spring with a full schedule.

MASN, still working off essentially a skeleton crew, now holds carriage deals with DirecTV, RCN Cable, Charter Communications and Verizon for its forthcoming FiOS fiber-optic TV service. While each of the carriers is in a growth mode in the Washington area, none has nearly the 57 percent market share held by Comcast.

Those carriers also disputed Whitelaw’s notion that they were interested only in Nationals games.

“We have a dedicated channel ready and waiting for them,” said Richard Ramlall, RCN Cable senior vice president. “We’re ready to go, and we look forward to when we do get additional programming from MASN.”

Meanwhile, MASN’s fight against Comcast wages on. The network and the Orioles have twice won legal judgments in Montgomery County, Md., dismissing Comcast’s claims that the Orioles are violating their contractual right by announcing plans to move Baltimore’s games to MASN starting in 2007. Following the second ruling, MASN sent another proposed term sheet for carriage to Comcast executives, but nothing has come of it.

The lack of 24-hour programming on MASN means another season of diminished marketing opportunities for a Nationals club still struggling to find them.

“A full-time, 24-hour programming channel will help find new viewers and non-core fans, which will be a terrific marketing tool in the future,” said Nationals president Tony Tavares. “MASN is doing the best that it can under the difficult circumstances, and we have a long-term deal, so wishing and hoping and allowing ourselves to be disappointed because we don’t have full-time programming is a waste of energy.”

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