Three congressmen have asked the Federal Communications Commission to block Comcast Cable's merger with Adelphia Communications unless Comcast agrees to outside arbitration of its dispute with Orioles owner Peter Angelos over broadcasting Washington Nationals games.
Reps. Jim Moran and Tom Davis of Virginia and Albert Wynn of Maryland have tried to hasten a deal for months and are now hoping to do so by leveraging one of Comcast's most important business transactions. All three represent constituents who have been largely unable to watch the Nationals because of the Angelos-Comcast standoff.
"Requiring the parties to submit to arbitration in this instance would be a first step by the Commission to address the impact of potential restrictions on the availability of regional sports programming by major cable operators," the congressmen wrote in a letter to FCC chairman Kevin Martin.
Comcast officials did not comment specifically on the letter.
"Unlike the Orioles, Comcast has always supported the return of major league baseball to Washington and we have proposed multiple solutions to resolve this issue," said executive vice president David L. Cohen in a statement. "We continue to seek a resolution that protects our customers and Nationals fans to get the Nationals games on TV as quickly as possible."
An FCC spokesman said the agency does not comment on pending reviews.
Nationals games have been unavailable to 1.3 million Comcast customers in Maryland and Virginia since the team started play last season. Major League Baseball granted broadcast rights for the games to the regional Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which Comcast refuses to carry.
The Orioles own about 90 percent of MASN and the Nationals own the rest. Angelos also pays an annual fee for the right to broadcast Nationals games. Comcast SportsNet sued the Orioles last year, saying the creation of MASN breached the cable company's contract to broadcast the club's games. A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge dismissed that case, but appeals are pending.
Meanwhile, Davis' House Committee on Government Reform held a hearing on the standoff in April. A parade of elected officials urged the sides to reach a rapid agreement for the sake of Nationals fans. But neither Comcast nor MASN has announced any progress in negotiations since.
The full House of Representatives voted to urge the FCC last month to review an MASN complaint that Comcast is using its dominant market position to keep Nationals games off the air.
MASN spokesman Todd Webster said the network welcomed the pressure from Congress.
"The anger over Comcast's anti-competitive behavior has reached a boiling point," he said. "We hope the FCC will stand up for consumers and respect the will of the Congress by ending the Comcast blackout."
MASN has signed distribution deals with other cable providers such as Cox Communications in Northern Virginia, DirecTV, RCN and Verizon.