Time Warner Cable gives up, admits defeat on “The Dodgers Channel”

Don’t take my word for it. It’s The Los Angeles Times who, in an article posted last night, said that Time Warner Cable just plain gives up. They admit that none of their recent schemes to get more coverage for their SportsNet LA channel have worked. That means that once again for Dodgers fans it’s Time Warner Cable or nothing (well almost nothing, I’ll explain in a minute.) DIRECTV and DISH have no plans to carry the channel, which hosts home team broadcasts by the excellent Vin Scully. Mr. Scully is one of the last of the “old school” broadcasters still working today, and this is his last year. Even if you don’t care for the Dodgers, chances are you have some respect for Mr. Scully.

This situation, which is unlikely to be resolved this season, means that fans are still out of luck, and probably will be until Time Warner Cable finds a new owner. Right now that owner is expected to be Charter Communications but that could change pending FCC review.

What happened?
According to Time Warner Cable reps, they reached out to other pay-TV companies with a lower price, comparable to what DIRECTV charges for its Root Sports Northwest channel. No one bit. They offered a one-year teaser rate and then a six-year price lock, and still no action. This has to tell you that there’s something really wrong here, since it really seems like they’re willing to get prices close to where they need to be. In my opinion there are three things that Time Warner Cable just didn’t consider.

They got greedy.
Time Warner Cable’s negotiations with other providers were especially acrimonious when they launched TWC SportsNet, a channel that shows practically nothing but Lakers games. The Lakers are a bankable franchise, and that kept pay-TV companies at the table. When it came time to launch a second channel devoted to just one single sports team, pay-TV companies were already bitter. They looked carefully, and then said no.

Blackout rules are killing the business model
Major League Baseball has ridiculous blackout rules. Their definitions of the areas they can black out are just absurd, and for that reason and others it’s practically impossible to watch a Dodgers home game unless you’re in the stadium. So keep in mind then that Time Warner Cable wasn’t asking other companies to pay for all the games, just about half of them. This is a problem shared with other regional sports networks, most of them are much lower priced. There are a few teams out there with national appeal and when you’re talking about a team like that (the Red Sox, the Yankees, etc.) most fans will be able to see all the games no matter where they are, unless that national team is playing the local one.

The ridiculous thing is that anyone actually thought pay-TV companies would pay $8 per month per subscriber for half the Dodgers games. Los Angeles sports fans are notoriously fickle and while the team continues to improve, its long-term fan base has always been small. For that reason, they’re a team that many people don’t think of unless they’re in the playoffs.

And then there’s MLB.TV to consider.
If you want to watch Dodgers games, you actually have an option. The MLB.TV package, free with DIRECTV MLB Extra Innings, actually includes SportsNet LA broadcasts (of course, subject to blackouts.) MLB.TV is on a lot of devices and it’s priced reasonably for the average person. If you have DIRECTV and you subscribe to MLB Extra Innings, you get MLB.TV for free and that means you also get Dodgers games. DIRECTV doesn’t need to pay more… remember the channel carries almost nothing but the games themselves and some commentary. There’s no draw there. No reason to charge millions of customers extra for something they can get if they want to already.

See, the bottom line here is that Time Warner Cable just didn’t think about any of these things when they paid billions of dollars for a long-term contract with the Dodgers. And now, they’re finally seeing the error of their ways. It’s hard to know what’s going to come of it, though — that’s up to the next owner. Personally I’ve said several times that the sale of Time Warner Cable should come with a guarantee that the SportsNet channels will be spun off into a separate entity. This would allow them to enter a controlled bankruptcy, either voiding the agreement with the Dodgers permanently or allowing for it to be renegotiated. That makes the most sense; whomever picks up the failing enterprise can do what it takes to bring it back.

Here’s one more thought: I think the City of Los Angeles should just be given the contract. They should own SportsNet LA, TWC SportsNet, and the Spanish TWC sports channels and put out a contract to operate it. Why? If there’s ever a city that’s suffered financially for its teams, it’s Los Angeles. The impact on the roads, on police and other civic entities, and the tax breaks they’ve given their teams amount to a huge money suck and the people of Los Angeles haven’t gotten anything for their investment. Let the city own the channels and make them free for Angelenos. Charge other people in the area a fair price, and maybe — just maybe — things can get back to normal. And then we can talk about the Dodgers’ pitching… but one tragedy at a time.