Kerry attacks DirecTV package

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Kerry plans to say at a Senate hearing today that the system that should allow fans easy access to televised baseball games from multiple markets "is not working."

In a statement to be delivered to the Senate Commerce Committee, the Massachusetts Democrat expressed reservations about a $700 million deal that could make Major League Baseball's Extra Innings package - which allows fans to watch out-of-market games - the exclusive property of the DirecTV satellite service.

Kerry said he was concerned about "exclusive carriage deals in the sports industry" and that he hoped the Senate could do something about them.

"I have no doubt that there are business advantages, but what is the impact on fans? They lose the content," said an advance copy of Kerry's remarks obtained by The Sun. "Or, as we will discover today, they are forced to change their TV service to see games. That is wrong. That is a sign that the system is not working."

Extra Innings, which was offered last season by cable as well as satellite providers, is popular with fans who move away from their favorite team's market but want to see the games from afar, as well as hardcore fans and fantasy players.

The DirecTV deal, announced March 8, has been a hot topic on Baltimore baseball fans' online sites. "It's the fans who are getting played," wrote one fan recently on a Sun baseball forum.

Some fans who don't get DirecTV say they may now consider subscribing to MLB's broadband package. But Kerry told reporters during a conference call yesterday that watching a game online "is not exactly comparable to a high-definition television experience."

Kerry said Congress can't veto the DirecTV deal but could revisit issues that are sensitive for baseball such as its antitrust exemption, which allows the sport to pool resources among its teams.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania, also has raised concerns about the deal, as well as cable television subscribers' inability to access a similar NFL premium service. Rights to the out-of-market football package are held by DirectTV, which has about 16 million subscribers.

As part of its baseball deal, the satellite provider will carry the MLB Channel on its basic tier. The channel is due to launch in 2009.

MLB said it wasn't trying to shut out cable operators and other DirectTV competitors from offering Extra Innings. Baseball said other providers such as In Demand, a cable consortium that carried the package last season, were allowed to match the terms of the deal.

But In Demand has been unable to reach an agreement with MLB. A recent proposal by In Demand fell short of the conditions it was required to meet, MLB said.

DirecTV spokesman Robert Mercer declined comment yesterday. Its chief executive officer, Chase Carey, will appear at today's hearing along with Kerry and representatives of MLB, In Demand and EchoStar Satellite.

Mercer pointed out a recent letter to the FCC in which DirecTV said that only 230,000 non-DirecTV subscribers subscribed to Extra Innings last year.

But Kerry said yesterday that 75 million people had access to the package last season. "Once it moves to DirecTV, that access is going to be reduced by about five-fold," Kerry said.

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