Blazers pursue Comcast solution

Proposed merger could open avenue to resolve conflict

By Brian T. Smith, Columbian Sports Writer

Published:

 

The Portland Trail Blazers’ dispute with Comcast SportsNet Northwest has reached Washington, D.C.

The Blazers filed a letter June 21 with the Federal Communications Commission, asking the government agency to allow the team’s basketball games to be broadcast on television in Oregon and Washington by distributors other than CSN, The Columbian has learned.

Nearly two-thirds of the Blazers’ 82 regular-season games are exclusively televised by CSN, while the remainder are carried by national stations and a local NBC affiliate. However, Blazers fans who subscribe to major satellite networks such as DirecTV and Dish Network, as well as other regional cable providers, are unable to watch CSN’s telecasts.

The Blazers’ request was submitted as part of an official comment during an ongoing approval period, as the FCC reviews a proposed merger between Comcast, General Electric Company, and NBC Universal.

A decision by the FCC about the merger — which would combine all three corporations into a new joint venture called NBCU — is not expected until late 2010 at the earliest. But if the merger and Portland’s request are approved, it would finally provide the Blazers with the opportunity to use other networks to distribute the team’s games.

David Fisk, FCC director of media relations, said Monday that any requests submitted during the approval process will be reviewed and reflected in the commission’s final analysis.

“We don’t comment on individual points of view or comments as they come in,” Fisk said.

The Blazers signed a 10-year, $120 million TV-distribution deal with CSN in 2007. However, Portland has become increasingly frustrated with the station since the deal was signed.

Blazers president Larry Miller told The Columbian in January that the organization was “disappointed the carriage distribution hasn’t been resolved,” following an unsuccessful attempt by the Blazers to broadcast CSN-televised games on the internet.

The dispute between the Blazers and CSN gained further attention when the Oregon House of Representatives’ Consumer Protection and Government Accountability Committee held a hearing Feb. 24 about the lack of availability for CSN’s Blazers telecasts.

But evidence of the Blazers’ growing frustration with CSN reaches a new level in the letter signed by Miller, transmitted by D.C.-based law firm Greenberg Traurig, and submitted to FCC Secretary Marlene Dortch.

Miller describes in detail a three-year ordeal that the team president says now has Blazers fans “held hostage.”

He writes that the station betrayed its original promise to the Blazers, citing a 2007 press conference in which CSN President Jon Litner said the Philadelphia-based company would dramatically increase exposure for the Blazers. Miller also highlights a CSN statement that Blazers games would be made available to other TV providers throughout the region.

“Unfortunately, by the start of the 2007-2008 NBA season — the first season covered under the telecast contract — CSN had not increased exposure of Blazers games as promised,” Miller says in the letter. “In fact, it had not completed a single affiliation agreement with any satellite television or cable operator other than its own corporate affiliate, Comcast.”

Miller then addresses the “increasingly negative feedback” the Blazers have received from fans about CSN, while acknowledging local media coverage that has highlighted the lack of televised game access, in turn sharply criticizing the Blazers.

CSN is carried by 11 separate providers, including Verizon, and is available to 1.1 million households in 264 communities throughout Oregon and Washington.

“The network always has and continues to be available to all local TV providers,” said Tim Fitzpatrick, a CSN public relations representative. “We share the Blazers’ frustration that DirecTV and a few others have chosen not to carry the network, despite our efforts to get them to carry it.”

CSN general manager David Manougian said during the state legislature hearing that DirecTV has been repeatedly offered the opportunity to carry CSN but has declined. He referenced a multi-million dollar marketing campaign that saw more than 6,000 regional sports fans contact DirecTV and request that the network add CSN. The request fell on “deaf ears,” Manougian said.

Meanwhile, the strongest component of Miller’s testimony connects the past with the present. Siding with “hundreds of thousands of Blazers fans in Oregon and Washington who are no longer able to view Blazers games,” Miller urges the FCC to take action.

Miller said CSN’s programming control, coupled with the proposed merger, could increase the network’s ability and incentive to maintain the status quo unless the Blazers’ request is approved.

“The Blazers respectfully submit that Comcast has used its dominant position in the distribution of video programming throughout greater Portland, the state of Oregon, and Western Washington to limit access to Blazers games by many of those consumers who care most about access — loyal and enthusiastic Blazers fans,” Miller says.

Miller declined Sunday to further discuss the letter.

“We don’t have anything to add to the FCC letter, beyond reiterating that we are disappointed that the carriage distribution hasn’t been resolved,” Miller said. “We are continuing to pursue all of our rights under our contract, which must be done on a confidential basis.”

View the letter: Check columbian.com/sports to view the Portland Trail Blazers’ letter to the FCC.

On the web: FCC — Comcast/NBC merger: http://www.fcc.gov/transaction/comcast-nbcu.html

Check the Blazer Banter blog at columbian.com/blazerbanter for notes, news, interviews and videos.

Twitter: twitter.com/blazerbanter

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