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Time Warner Cable lowers price of Dodgers channel, hoping to end stalemate

Time Warner Cable is floating a proposal designed to end the standoff over distribution of the sports channel owned by the Los Angeles Dodgers to allow legions of Southern California baseball fans to enjoy Hall of Fame announcer Vin Scully's final season in the broadcast booth.

Time Warner Cable said late Tuesday that it had cut by 30% the price of the sports channel offered to DirecTV and other pay-TV providers with the hope of spurring long-stalled negotiations over carriage of the channel before the new season begins April 4.

The move could provide a hoped-for breakthrough in the bitter dispute that has prevented thousands of Dodgers fans from watching their favorite team on TV for the last two seasons. Alternatively, Time Warner Cable could strike out once again, frustrating long-suffering fans.

“We owe it to Dodger fans to try to get a deal done, especially because of the historic nature of this year with it being [baseball announcer] Vin Scully's final season,” Time Warner Cable spokesman Andrew Fegyveresi said late Tuesday.

Currently only baseball fans in 1.8 million homes in Southern California served by Time Warner Cable or Charter Communications have access to the channel owned by Guggenheim Baseball Management. Time Warner Cable distributes the channel on behalf of the team.

DirecTV, AT&T, Verizon and Cox Communications have balked at the price of the channel that Time Warner had been demanding. Pay-TV providers have been under pressure to hold the line on programming costs because consumers are tired of seeing their pay-TV rates increase every year.

The stalemate between Time Warner Cable and other providers has roiled politicians and fans who receive their TV service from DirecTV, Verizon, AT&T and Cox Communications. Those companies all have refused to carry the channel, citing its high cost.

Because of the channel's limited distribution, Time Warner Cable has lost well over $100 million a year since 2014. The company is motivated to try to bring in fees from other pay-TV providers to mitigate its losses.

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Time Warner Cable executives late Tuesday declined to discuss the new rate for the channel but confirmed that the company was offering distributors SportsNet LA at a 30% discount compared with last season's prices. According to SNL Kagan, the channel had been offered for about $4.90 per month per subscriber home.

As part of the new proposal, Time Warner Cable has offered the channel to other providers at a cost of about $3.50 per month per subscriber home, according to two people familiar with the proposal who were not authorized to discuss deal terms.

The lower rate would bring the cost of SportsNet LA more in line with the industry average for regional sports networks. Until now, the Dodgers channel was the second-most-expensive regional sports channel, behind the YES Network, which carries New York Yankees games, according to SNL Kagan.

The team and Time Warner Cable have been trying to encourage DirecTV to take the deal, which would double the circulation of the Dodgers channel almost overnight. DirecTV declined late Tuesday to comment.

The move marks the first time that Time Warner Cable has slashed the price of the channel to try to entice other pay-TV providers to come back to the bargaining table. Last season came and went without a deal — or even substantial progress in negotiations between the various companies.

But the campaign to end the stalemate took on greater urgency in recent weeks because this will be Scully's 67th and final year as the Dodgers' television announcer. Scully plans to retire after the 2016 season.

Scully began calling the games back in 1950 when the Dodgers played in Brooklyn.

The proposal by Time Warner Cable would be a one-year deal covering the upcoming season.

So far, none of the other pay-TV providers have agreed to play ball, although talks with at least two providers are in the early stages and are expected to accelerate in the next week, said two knowledgeable people who asked not to be identified.

Time Warner Cable, in a statement, said late Tuesday that it was not sure whether the other pay-TV providers would finally drop their objections to carrying the channel — at least not before the season begins.

“We've had discussions with several providers but we don't expect any other distributors to carry SportsNet LA by opening day,” Fegyveresi said in a statement. He encouraged fans to switch to Charter or Time Warner Cable.

There already was great hope that this would be the year that the blackout would finally end because of ownership changes among pay-TV distributors. Charter Communications is close to winning federal approval for its $67-billion takeover of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, which also carries the Dodgers channel.

Last June, Charter agreed to finally carry SportsNet LA in Southern California, several weeks after announcing its deal to buy Time Warner Cable. Charter Chief Executive Tom Rutledge had pledged to try to make the Dodgers channel more widely available should his company win approval to take over Time Warner Cable's operations.

However, Charter probably won't close on its huge merger until mid-May at the earliest — more than six weeks into the new season.

In addition, Frontier Communications on April 1 is taking over Verizon's pay-TV operations and that company, which is new to the region, might have an incentive to sign up for the channel.

If a deal can't be reached, it will be the third baseball season that a majority of homes in the region would not have access to Dodgers baseball. In some areas, such as Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills Estates and southern Orange County, consumers do not have the option of receiving the channel because Cox Communications and DirecTV have declined to carry the channel.

“We hope we can come to an agreement with TWC SportsNet LA that does not burden our customers with excessive price increases,” Cox said in a statement.

Twitter: @MegJamesLAT

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

8:37 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information.

This article was first posted at 5:29 p.m.

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