Luke DeCock

Why you still can’t watch the Orioles or Nationals on cable in the Triangle

Jonathan Schoop #6 of the Baltimore Orioles celebrates with teammates after the Orioles defeated the Texas Rangers 9-7 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on July 20, 2017 in Baltimore. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Jonathan Schoop #6 of the Baltimore Orioles celebrates with teammates after the Orioles defeated the Texas Rangers 9-7 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on July 20, 2017 in Baltimore. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) Getty Images

News of a ruling in a lawsuit involving the regional sports network MASN last week might have piqued the interest of sports TV viewers in the Triangle, but to no avail. It was a lawsuit unrelated to the long-dormant efforts to bring Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals telecasts to cable here, a process that hasn’t seen any movement in years.

It will come as no surprise to sports TV viewers in the Triangle that the Orioles and Nationals are entangled in what MLB commissioner Rob Manfred called an “intractable” dispute. That’s a good word to describe the long-ago negotiations between MASN and what was then called Time Warner Cable and AT&T U-verse, when the cable network wanted a prime channel position on what used to be called basic, or analog, cable and the providers would only offer a digital position.

So here we are, more than 10 years later, and cable customers in the Triangle still can’t see any games involving the Orioles or Nationals – even if they pay extra for the MLB Extra Innings package – unless they’re national broadcasts.

“No update to report,” a Spectrum spokesperson wrote in an email. A spokesman for AT&T emailed, “we don’t have anything new to share.” Efforts to reach MASN executives were unsuccessful.

The negotiations were contentious, litigious and complicated, eventually making it all the way to a federal appeals court, which in 2012 ruled in favor of what was it is now called Spectrum – at which point MASN dissolved its lobbying apparatus and essentially gave up.

To recap: When the Nationals arrived in Washington, in return for infringing on the Orioles’ traditional television territory, the Orioles were given their television rights and launched a new network in 2006 to carry both teams’ games, the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. To that point, Orioles games had been available in the Triangle first on Home Team Sports and then Fox Sports South, both networks carried by Time Warner on basic cable.

MASN was able to get the channel position and rights fees it wanted from several smaller cable providers in North Carolina as well as satellite providers DirecTV and Dish, but was never able to get any traction with Time Warner Cable.

Negotiations were complicated by the government’s conditional approval of Comcast and Time Warner’s purchase of Adelphia, which required cable providers to give analog carriage to any regional sports network, or RSN. This was to ensure cable providers that launched their own sports networks – like Comcast’s networks in Washington, Philadelphia and Chicago, among others – couldn’t squeeze out local competitors.

MASN insisted the Adelphia agreement required Time Warner to provide analog carriage; Time Warner insisted that MASN’s programming wasn’t relevant to its customers in North Carolina. A partial FCC panel ruled in favor of MASN in 2008 before the full FCC ruled in favor of Time Warner in 2010, citing the “limited demand in North Carolina for MASN.” The network’s federal court appeals were unsuccessful, and that’s the way things have stayed ever since.

Part of the problem is MLB’s antiquated allocation of television territories, an outgrowth of the original, archaic agreements clubs had with each other to be able to show their opponents’ games on TV in their own markets. (The original “express written consent.”)

So while Raleigh/Durham/Fayetteville is technically an Orioles/Nationals market, certain areas of western North Carolina get both of those teams and the Atlanta Braves and some areas – like Asheville and parts of Charlotte and the Triad – get all three of those teams and the Cincinnati Reds. That distribution may be unfair and illogical, but it might as well be set in stone at this point.

That wasn’t a problem here when WTBS was a superstation that carried Braves games into this (and every) market, or when what is now known as Fox Sports Carolinas, a network already carried by Time Warner, had the rights to show Orioles games here. Once MASN came into existence, it became a problem.

The web of mergers and acquisitions in the cable industry has made all of this kind of comical. Charter, which carried MASN in places like Manteo and Roanoke Rapids, is now part of Spectrum, as is Time Warner Cable. So there are arbitrary boundaries east of Raleigh where some Spectrum customers can get MASN and most cannot. Meanwhile, AT&T owns DirecTV, which carries MASN, while U-verse does not.

Barring a dramatic uptick in interest in the Orioles and/or Nationals in this market or an alteration in MLB television territories as part of some larger deal, both of which appear exceedingly unlikely, none of this figures to change anytime soon.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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