Byproduct of HTS sale: keeping out competition


In the short term, Comcast's purchase of Home Team Sports is likely to mean little to local sports viewers. Orioles, Washington Wizards and Capitals games will still air on the channel, most likely with the same announcers and production staffs.

Over the long haul, however, the HTS sale may position Comcast, the nation's third-largest cable carrier, as a dominant player in sports in the Baltimore-Washington corridor on both the distribution and programming side. HTS is currently available to 4.9 million homes in a region that extends from North Carolina to southern Pennsylvania.

Additionally, the sale may have the side effect of making the relocation of a major-league baseball franchise in the Washington area more unlikely.

By inheriting the cable and over-the-air television rights to the Orioles, Comcast likely becomes an important ally with the team in its fight to keep another major-league team from the region, in either Washington or Northern Virginia.

Vickie Glazar, a Comcast spokeswoman, said deals to take over cable systems in Baltimore City, the District of Columbia, Montgomery County and Arlington, Va., are expected to be finished by the end of the year.

Comcast already has the cable rights to systems in Baltimore, Harford, Howard, Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles and Prince George's counties in Maryland, Prince William County in Virginia as well as the cities of Salisbury and Pokemoke City in Maryland and Alexandria and Reston in Virginia. All totaled, Comcast will have more than 1.5 million subscribers in the region by early 2001.

The cable system's ownership of HTS will make it difficult for the channel to find sufficient blocks of time to carry another team's games. Meanwhile, Comcast's control of cable systems will make it unlikely that another channel will find enough subscribers to make a new channel worth its while.

Officials at the Philadelphia-based Comcast, which owns the 76ers and Flyers, as well as the First Union Center and Spectrum arenas, had few answers yesterday about what changes might be in the works for HTS.

"Are we looking for opportunities to extend our brand locally? Yes. Are we looking for opportunities for cross-promotion? Yes. Do we know how things ultimately will develop? No," Glazar said.

As the HTS sale does not close until the end of the year, Comcast officials - who also purchased the Bowie Baysox, Frederick Keys and Delmarva Shorebirds last month - would be unlikely to make changes - including that of the name of the channel - before then, Glazar said.

The sale of HTS was deemed necessary by Viacom, which gained control of the channel in its purchase of CBS, which had owned a majority share of HTS.

Viacom officials said in May that HTS and its Midwest sister outlet, Midwest Sports Channel, did not fit into its plans, and looked to sell the two channels to a compatible buyer.

Beyond the sports networks, Viacom, which sold the Bethesda-based HTS, along with its Midwestern component for a rumored $300 million, is also likely to receive entree into channel distribution from Comcast, which has more than 8.2 million subscribers across the country.

Comcast beat out Fox, which owns an estimated 20 percent share of HTS, marking the second time in five years that Fox has lost either properties or a channel itself to HTS.

After the 1996 baseball season, HTS officials announced a new 10-year, $250 million deal with the Orioles, Capitals and Wizards (then the Bullets) that trumped an offer from Fox that would have created a new regional sports channel. Fox officials sued the teams and HTS, claiming breech of contract.

As a part of the settlement, HTS became a Fox Sports Net affiliate, carrying large blocks of Fox programming, including its news, baseball, soccer and racing packages, an arrangement that will continue in the new deal.

The relationship between Comcast and HTS has been a long and profitable one. Comcast, then known as Caltech, was the first HTS affiliate, coming on board when the channel was launched in 1984. Of the first 16,000 homes to have HTS, 11,000 of them were Caltech homes.

In 1996, Comcast converted HTS from premium status, where only those viewers who paid a monthly fee could receive the channel, to basic, where all subscribers could receive it. Both sides have reaped significant benefits, Comcast in increased subscribers and HTS in increased revenues.

"All we know is that they like what we've done in the past," said Jeff Wagner, HTS' general sales manager. "We don't know what their plans are for us. We just know they want us. We've dealt with them historically, and our relationship has always been a good one."

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