For Dodgers fans, the TV shutout continues

With the Comcast-Time Warner deal dead, fans have little hope of new TV outlets for Dodgers games

For Dodgers fans, the long wait to see games televised again may be headed into extra innings.

An estimated 70% of Los Angeles-area households don't get the SportsNet LA channel that carries Dodgers games. That situation was expected to be corrected if Comcast Corp.'s planned $45-billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable had succeeded.

With that merger officially pronounced dead Friday, the prospects of a deal to carry the games on other cable and satellite providers were as murky as ever.

"There's no end in sight," said David Carter, executive director of the USC Marshall Sports Business Institute. "There does not appear to be an easy workaround to get this thing done."

With few exceptions, televised Dodgers games can be seen only by customers of Time Warner Cable, which agreed to pay $8.35 billion over 25 years for the rights to distribute the Dodgers-owned SportsNet LA.

Its rivals, including DirecTV and Charter Communications, have refused to pay what they say are excessive fees to carry the games. The standoff began last season and has carried over into the current one.

On Friday, Time Warner Cable chief Robert D. Marcus said he would like to resume talks with other providers.

"It takes willing parties in order to make a deal, and we haven't had much luck getting any of the major distributors to the negotiating table so that we can have productive conversations," Marcus said. "But we are ready, willing and able to have those discussions. We'd love to have the games in front of Dodger fans as soon as we can."

But any kind of resolution is still out of reach as long as pay-TV operators that also include Verizon FiOS, AT&T and Cox Communications continue to bristle at the cost of the channel. Time Warner Cable has asked other cable and satellite TV companies to pay as much as $4.90 a month per subscriber for SportsNet LA, according to industry consulting firm SNL Kagan.

Time Warner Cable and Guggenheim Baseball Management, which owns the Dodgers, overestimated consumer interest and underestimated resistance from other pay-TV operators.

If Comcast had succeeded in acquiring Time Warner Cable, it was expected to cut the price and swallow any losses — partly to curry customer goodwill, and partly because its greater financial clout and assets would have made it easier to horse-trade with DirecTV, the nation's second-largest pay-TV provider.

That could still happen if a new potential buyer, such as Charter, succeeded in acquiring Time Warner Cable.

Absent such a deal, Marcus also might give in and work out agreements with pay-TV operators by lowering the cost of the network. Time Warner Cable is losing well over $100 million a year on its SportsNet LA contract.

"We remain interested in carrying SportsNet LA if we can do so at terms that meet the needs of fans and don't burden our entire customer base," a spokesman for Cox Communications, which serves Orange County, said Friday. "Reasonable content prices and sports tiers could accomplish that."

The Dodgers and DirecTV declined to comment on the Dodger channel situation. Charter also declined to comment, though a person close to the company said Comcast's decision to pull its bid for TWC does not affect its willingness to make a deal for SportsNet LA.

Marcus would not say whether Time Warner Cable would soon drop the price of the channel to entice other companies to carry it.

"But we have been more than willing to sit down at the table and have a conversation," Marcus said.

Another possibility is if Time Warner Cable strikes a deal to air some of the games on a local television station. Last year, TWC made a late-season deal to air the final few regular season games on KDOC-TV Channel 56 as a way to assuage fans. But analysts do not see that option as a blueprint for a long-term solution.

Or Time Warner Cable might allow the status quo to continue, further frustrating fans.

Longtime Dodgers fan Wayne Welde, a retired air traffic controller, subscribes to Verizon FiOS in West Covina and says he's frustrated that he still can't see the games. A couple of weeks ago, he mailed a package to the Dodgers' owners. The box contained two Dodger shirts and a message:

"I sent a little note in the box saying, 'I've been enjoying watching the Angels games on TV, and you've lost a fan,'" said Welde, 69. "There's a line between anguish, animosity and frustration, and I was just trying to pass on my frustration. The owners are out for the buck. The fans are just lost in the shuffle."

Jose Alvarez, who teaches English at Cal State Northridge, is so annoyed that he's trying to organize a one-weekend boycott of Dodger games.

"The alternatives are switch to Time Warner Cable or hack your Internet provider so you can watch the games on MLB.TV," said Alvarez, 32.

The Dodgers and Time Warner Cable created SportsNet LA at a time when consumers were willing to pay top dollar for sports programming. However, they did not anticipate some big shifts in viewing habits.

Consumers fed up with soaring cable bills want to ditch some of their channels or switch to lower-cost options such as Netflix and

Hulu. Pay-TV companies are nervous that by adding one too many high-priced channels and further driving up costs to subscribers, they may lose more customers.

The resistance to expensive TV packages has reinforced the stalemate.

Early in the negotiation process, pay-TV operators proposed offering Sports-Net LA separately to fans willing to pay extra for it, rather than including it in basic packages that most subscribers receive.

Time Warner Cable has been unwilling to bend, saying no other sports channel is offered a la carte. What's more, interested subscribers would have to fork over $25 a month — or more — for the channel for TWC to recoup the money it pays the Dodgers.

"Unless Time Warner does what it should have done when it found out it was overpriced — bite the bullet and write off a big chunk of what it paid the Dodgers — it is unlikely Dodgers fans will have carriage this year," said Marc Ganis, president of the consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd.

"At some point, they're going to have to bite the bullet, and it might as well be sooner rather than later so Dodger fans can watch the games," Ganis said.

Staff writers Bill Shaikin and Daniel Miller contributed to this report.

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