Will Time Warner Cable customers in the Triangle be able to watch Major League Baseball this spring? An arbitrator charged with settling that question has been removed from the dispute, leaving it unanswered as opening day approaches.
Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, a Maryland-based network that carries Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals games, objected last year when the cable company announced plans to carry MASN only on its digital tier, which is more expensive than the expanded basic service tier. Since the two parties could not agree, MASN is currently unavailable on any TWC plan.
In January, arbitrator Jerome Sussman, who had been appointed to the case by the Federal Communications Commission, ruled that TWC must carry MASN's programming on its standard cable package. (See "FCC to Time Warner: Play ball!" Jan. 23.)
"The conclusion that Time Warner deliberately discriminated against MASN is inescapable from the documents and testimony," Sussman wrote in his decision. He speculated that the cable company's motive for discrimination lay in its own channel, News 14 Carolina, which broadcasts some televised sports games and could be in a position to provide more sports coverage if MASN were unavailable to its subscribers. A second round of arbitration this month would have decided the terms under which TWC would carry the network.
But on Feb. 21, the American Arbitration Association removed Sussman from the case and asked the two parties to agree on a new arbitrator who would determine "how this matter will proceed." It is unclear whether Sussman's decision will stand; the AAA does not comment on its cases.
Time Warner spokeswoman Melissa Buscher says the association acted pursuant to a rule that arbitrators should remain impartial and independent, but would not comment on any complaint her company might have made. "We are very pleased with this decision and we continue to believe that we will prevail in the long run on this dispute," she says.
MASN spokesman Todd Webster is confident that Sussman's decision will stand. He hopes the issue will be resolved in time for the cable company's 1.5 million North Carolina subscribers to watch the beginning of baseball season.
"The reality is that Time Warner could flip a switch and turn MASN on tomorrow," he says. "For them to be doing somersaults to keep baseball from their customers is sad commentary on how this cable monopoly operates."
The Washington Nationals play their first game March 30.