Comcast gets down to basics with HTS, and deserves hand

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Longtime readers of this space, and especially those who are easily startled, are advised to sit down and refrain from imbibing anything that might shoot out quickly when you read the next paragraph, which contains words never before seen in this column.

Way to go, Comcast.

We're speaking, of course, of the cable company's decision to switch the status of Home Team Sports from a premium channel to that of basic, starting Dec. 31, in its three suburban systems in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties, affecting 300,000 subscribers.

"This is the best day at this park since Sept. 6," said Terry Chili, head of HTS affiliate relations, during Friday's announcement at Oriole Park, referring to the day Cal Ripken surpassed Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games mark.

In the short term, Comcast, which has about 20,000 HTS subscribers, will take a hit, in that it won't collect the premium fees it charged to the regional sports channel's viewers. But new advertising opportunities and more subscribers should cushion the financial blow, and the goodwill for doing something nice for its customers should go a long way.

"We worked out a good business arrangement that works for the best for both sides," said Stephen Burch, Comcast's senior regional vice president for the Mid-Atlantic area.

By the way, if you've rented one of those addressable converter boxes specifically to get HTS, Burch said they can be returned for the deposit, but you might want to keep them for pay-per-view sporting events or movies.

Pressure locally now shifts to TCI, the city's cable carrier, which is one of only three Maryland systems (Montgomery County and Ocean City being the others) not to offer HTS as a part of basic service. Chili said the two sides are talking, but nothing has been settled.

Here's to the winners

Congratulations go out to ESPN, which captured five CableAce awards in ceremonies in Los Angeles on Saturday night.

The total sports network received the outstanding sports events series coverage for its Sunday night NFL telecasts, and its "NFL GameDay" was recognized as best sports news series.

In addition, Dick Schaap was named best sports commentator/analyst, Keith Olbermann was tapped as best sports host, and Doug Holmes received the Ace for outstanding direction of a live sports series or event, for his work on the 1995 Stanley Cup finals.

Other sports awards went to Turner for sports events specials coverage for the "Discover Card Stars on Ice," to Marv Albert for his play-by-play work on New York Knicks basketball for Madison Square Garden Network, to MTV for outstanding sports information series, "MTV Sports," and to HBO for "Sonny Liston: The Mysterious Life and Death of a Champion" in the best sports information special category.

MTV?

When Wright is wrong

There are those who may proclaim that CBS golf analyst Ben Wright is the victim of "political correctness," that he should be free to speak his mind, as he did last May on the subjects of whether lesbians on the LPGA tour hurt the sport's image in corporate boardrooms and on whether the physical makeup of women changes their game.

Indeed, Wright or any other broadcaster should be entitled to speak freely and responsibly on matters without fear of being shouted down.

But Wright's crime, carried out with the full complicity of CBS, is lying about what he's said, dis- obeying the orders of his boss, sports President David Kenin, to keep quiet, and for attempting to discredit the reporter who broke the story.

CBS still doesn't appear to get it. Kenin, in the Sports Illustrated piece last week that exposed Wright's defenses as fraudulent, suggested that the reporter, Valerie Helmbreck of the Wilmington (Del.) News-Journal, was "outside the community."

Maybe Helmbreck should be lucky to be outside a "community" where lying and character assassination are tolerated and even rewarded. Yes, the network issued a statement chastising Wright in one breath, but in another, it patted good old English boy Wright with a four-year contract extension, even after all of this came to light.

It's long past time for Ben Wright to go.

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