No relief for Dodgers fans as FCC puts reviews of mergers on hold

Analyses of media deals are on hold, foiling Dodgers fans without Time Warner

Baseball fans looking for a resolution in the long-running battle over distribution of a TV channel featuring the Los Angeles Dodgers will have to wait even longer.

On Friday, the Federal Communications Commission said it was putting on hold its review of two media mergers — Comcast's proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable and AT&T's planned acquisition of DirecTV. The federal agency said it needed time for a separate legal skirmish to play out in the courts.

The news was another strikeout for thousands of long-suffering Dodgers fans who had hoped the mergers would be completed in time for the start of the new Major League Baseball season next month.

But that hasn't happened. As a result, the channel, SportsNet LA, will be carried by only one major pay-TV company in Southern California: Time Warner Cable.

The impasse, now entering its second year, has frustrated legions of Dodgers fans, who complain they are being deprived of broadcasts by Hall of Fame announcer Vin Scully, who is in the final seasons of his long career.

The situation is reminiscent of last season when 70% of the homes in the Los Angeles region lacked access to the channel, which is owned by the Dodgers organization. Efforts to gain carriage for the channel on DirecTV, Cox Communications, Charter Communications, Verizon FiOS and other pay-TV providers have stalled because of a dispute over the price of the channel.

And now, the year-long impasse over the channel's distribution also has been extended because of the federal government's protracted review of two enormous media mergers. The various companies involved in the proposed mergers have been preoccupied with the review process and have had little incentive to resolve the Dodgers channel stalemate, according to people close to the companies.

Time Warner Cable, which entered into an arrangement with the Dodgers to sell the channel to other pay-TV companies, has tried unsuccessfully to restart negotiations with other pay-TV companies in recent weeks.

"We are actively pursuing meaningful negotiations with operators," Time Warner Cable said Friday in a statement. "We want all Dodgers fans to have access to SportsNet LA so they can experience the exclusive, in-depth Dodgers programming and games they love."

A representative of the Dodgers said: "We are in the process of digesting today's news."

But complicating matters is uncertainty surrounding Time Warner Cable's future ownership.

The FCC was scheduled to complete its reviews of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger by the end of March. The government has been scrutinizing that merger and the one involving AT&T and DirecTV since last summer, and many expected the agency would have made its decision by now.

But those reviews have been delayed by several issues. The FCC spent much of this year sorting out its position on a separate issue of net neutrality, which requires that high-speed Internet providers treat all traffic equally.

The FCC said Friday that it has paused its so-called "shot clock" on its review of the two mergers, citing a separate dispute with television programmers.

A group of programming companies, including Walt Disney Co., CBS Corp., 21st Century Fox, and Viacom Inc., have resisted the FCC's demands to disclose portions of their contracts with cable and satellite providers, including their rates. The FCC wants the documents to help evaluate whether the mergers are in the public interest.

The commission did not say how long the review would be delayed.

Comcast, Time Warner Cable and AT&T said they expect the FCC's delay to be a temporary hiccup. DirecTV, based in El Segundo, declined to comment.

"We anticipate the issues surrounding the litigation between the FCC and the programmers to be resolved quickly so the FCC can complete its review of our transaction," an AT&T spokesman said Friday. "We continue to look forward to closing our deal in the first half of the year."

Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice said the review of her company's proposed Time Warner Cable takeover was proceeding. If the merger is approved, Comcast would become the dominant pay-TV provider in the Los Angeles region with nearly 1.8 million subscriber homes.

"FCC appears to be making significant progress in its review of our transaction," Fitzmaurice said. "We look forward to working with the government to complete the regulatory review process."

Staff writer Bill Shaikin contributed to this report.

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