Comcast puts in O's as sub for C-SPAN2

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Fans of the C-SPAN cable channels are protesting Comcast's decision to pre-empt U.S. Senate broadcasts, Book TV and other shows in favor of Orioles or Washington Nationals baseball games.

A dedicated viewer of C-SPAN2 sat down a week ago to watch Book TV, and quicker than a major league fastball, the program was gone from the public affairs channel.

"All of a sudden a baseball game was on instead," the outraged viewer wrote to C-SPAN. "I was furious."

Comcast says it provided notice before it began bumping some C-SPAN2 shows last week because the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) needed a place to air Orioles and Nationals games. The sports network has one channel, and when both teams play simultaneously - which they do more often than not during the 162-game season - Comcast will borrow C-SPAN2 for baseball.

It has affected Comcast subscribers who receive MASN in the Baltimore and Washington areas as well as parts of Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware. C-SPAN says viewers have been sending e-mails "by the boatload" and calling to protest.

It's an unlikely marriage - Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain sharing a channel with ballplayers Melvin Mora and Nook Logan. The Orioles and Nationals have loyal fan bases, and so, apparently, does C-SPAN2, which says it provides "gavel-to-gavel coverage of the U.S. Senate."

"Frankly, this is a company town - the business is the federal government - and they [Comcast] have chosen the U.S. Senate channel to show baseball," said Matthew McGuire, an affiliate relations executive with C-SPAN in Washington.

McGuire said C-SPAN has received scores of complaints, "and don't forget that the interruptions have been few so far, but it's going to happen 125 times over the next six months, so we're going to hear much more."

Sixty-three Orioles games and 62 Nationals games are scheduled to appear on what MASN calls its "overflow channel."

Comcast says it selected C-SPAN2 for the overflow because the Senate conducts much of its business during the day, while most baseball games are at night. The Senate does hold evening sessions, particularly when it is nearing the end of a legislative session.

"We believe that having MASN2 and C-SPAN2 share the channel space would be one of the least disruptive solutions for our customers," said Beth Bacha, vice president of communications for Comcast Cable's Eastern Division.

She said Comcast recently made C-SPAN2 available, with uninterrupted access, on a digital channel. That means subscribers of digital cable, which costs more than analog service, won't have to worry about baseball seeping into public affairs.

To accommodate what it calls a "small number" of C-SPAN2 viewers who have analog, Comcast said it will provide digital converters for one television either for free or for about $1 to customers who request it. A second digital box would cost more.

Among those who have requested a digital box is Comcast customer and retiree Howard Crise of Baltimore. He is a self-described "C-SPAN junkie" and fan of Book TV, which includes author interviews and other features.

In an e-mail to The Sun, Crise said receiving a digital box would give him "dispensation so I can actually get the TV service I'm paying for."

The C-SPAN channels are funded by the cable industry and are considered a public service. There is no government mandate requiring them to be carried by cable providers, C-SPAN's McGuire said.

C-SPAN2 launched in 1987. Its predecessor, C-SPAN, offers live coverage of the House of Representatives.

This is the first season that MASN, majority-owned by the Orioles, is broadcasting both Nationals and Orioles games. Comcast SportsNet had broadcast rights to the Orioles last season. Many Nationals fans couldn't get MASN for most of last season because of a dispute between the network and Comcast over the cost of carrying the network.

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