7:51 PM PDT, October 6, 2012
The Lakers' first exhibition game is on television Sunday night, but not on my television, and probably not on your television.
This is not rumor. This is not urban legend. This is not some glitch. This is real.
As of now, the majority of the games played this season by the new-look, buzz-soaring, championship-or-bust Lakers will not be seen in the majority of Los Angeles households.
Odds are, you didn't know this. Chances are, you wouldn't discover it until you turned on your TV to watch Steve Nash's Lakers debut against the Golden State Warriors in Fresno on Sunday at 7 p.m. Just a guess, but you're going to wear out your thumb trying to scroll to a channel that isn't there, and then yank at your roots trying to figure out how this could happen.
Welcome to just another chapter in the ugly world of sports television business. The rich team and rich broadcast partner battle with the rich TV provider over the possession of fans who are wailing from the basement with their heads covered and their hands bound.
The Lakers' new $3-billion TV partner, Time Warner Cable, has been unable to convince the area's other giant television providers to run their two channels — SportsNet and Spanish-language Deportes — at an industry-reasonable $3.95 per person. Those other providers include DirecTV, Charter, Dish, Cox, Verizon and AT&T's U-verse, all outfits who are holding out for a better deal while their viewers will be the ones who pay.
Some say the providers are afraid to pay a fee that might be doubled when the Dodgers show up at their door next year with their own new TV network. Other says they have been empowered by their success in saving money by not showing the Pac-12 Networks, as if college football is even in the same league here as the Lakers, which it's not.
Whatever, it's so nutty, as of now, even the Lakers can't watch the Lakers. The television provider for their El Segundo headquarters building is DirecTV.
Wait, it gets worse. When their executive vice president for business operations, Jeanie Buss, goes home, she still can't watch the Lakers, shut out by a deal she helped negotiate.
"I've been a DirecTV customer for years, so I understand what everyone is going through," Buss said. "The providers have to decide whether they want to take our channel, and it's the customers who have to be vocal in letting their provider know they want it."
She wants vocal? Consider this column my scream. I've also been a DirecTV customer for years. It was sold to me as the cornerstone for sports channels. Turning on DirecTV and not finding the Lakers is like walking into a yogurt shop to discover it only sells ice cream. For them to waste this much time haggling over the hottest sports property among their 1.7 million Los Angeles households is insulting.
Do I think a deal will get done in time for the first Lakers regular-season cable telecast Oct. 31? Yes. Absolutely. Even though their operators act like dolts when I call about a reception problem ("Sir, unplug your DVR and plug it back in. Do it again. Do it again. If it still doesn't work, please cut down all your trees."), DirecTV is not stupid, and they will add Time Warner Cable at the last minute and, the other carriers will fall in line.
But I will scream nonethless for fans unfairly caught in the middle of a business game of chicken that will at least cause them to miss three weeks of one of the team's most compelling exhibition seasons ever. Many of these fans have already logged on to http://www.iwantmylakers.com to voice their concern and figure out their options.
"Honestly, this is not uncommon, talks like these take a little bit of time," said cable-war veteran Mark Shuken, senior vice president and general manager of Time Warner Cable Sports regional networks. "What is uncommon is the interest, the chatter, the noise, the demand for the network. I've never seen anything like it before."
I don't blame the Lakers for working out the sort of TV deal that helps them pay great players like Dwight Howard. I don't blame Time Warner Cable for trying to recoup some of its huge investment. And, really, it's hard to blame the providers for trying to keep our rates low.
But if there's nobody to blame, then why do I want to blame everyone?
"The Lakers are important to L.A. fans, who can rest assured DirecTV is very engaged with Time Warner Cable on how to best make the new Time Warner Cable SportsNet available in all our local customers homes," promised Robert Mercer, DirecTV spokesman.
Yet, when the Lakers don't show up in those homes Sunday, it will be just another reminder of the insignificance of those fans to the barons who run the TV networks to which they are so addicted.
"When you love a sports team, having them on TV is like having them come to your house 100 nights a year, they're like family coming over to visit," said Julie Brennan, retired Laguna Woods businesswoman who has been vocally protesting this shutout. "And now they're not?"
In some corners, it's crazy enough that the Lakers television appearances are being peddled like street corner drugs. I was in a Best Buy store Saturday when a DirecTV salesman sidled up to me and asked if I was a DirecTV customer. I told him I was, and promptly complained about the Lakers.
"No problem," said the salesman, who gave me a brochure that listed his name as Brandon Downs. "Just call the DirecTV main number, starting in the middle of the month, if you pay $4 a month you can watch the Lakers, it's the only place outside of Time Warner that you can do it."
I couldn't believe I had not heard of this. I couldn't believe that Time Warner Cable would allow its product to be sold on a tier system. I called DirecTV about their salesman and his offer. Their spokesman said it was "silly" and completely false.
As one of millions of Southland sports fans held hostage by TV executives, I don't know what is real anymore. I only know that, to them, we aren't.
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