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Dodgers' TV blackout for thousands of fans to enter fourth season

For the fourth consecutive year, the Dodgers’ television broadcasts could go unseen by a majority of fans in the Los Angeles area.

Charter Communications said Monday it does not anticipate reaching agreements with DirecTV or any other cable or satellite provider to carry the Dodgers-owned SportsNet LA channel by the time the regular season starts April 3.

Charter is the only major pay-TV provider that airs SportsNet LA in Southern California.

“At this point we don’t expect any other distributors to carry SNLA by opening day,” Charter said in a statement.

The Dodgers aired six games on Channel 56 at the end of the 2014 season, the first year of SportsNet LA, and six games on Channel 5 at the end of last season, so fans could see the final broadcasts in the 67-year career of iconic announcer Vin Scully.

That gave some fans the hope that, if the stalemate extended into this season, Charter might sell the rights to a small number of Dodgers games to an over-the-air station.

However, there are no current plans to air any games on free television, according to a person familiar with the situation but not authorized to discuss it publicly.

Also, although DirecTV and other carriers were offered a one-year discount last year as an incentive to carry SportsNet LA in Scully’s final season, there are no plans to offer a similar discount this season.

Charter inherited the channel last year in its merger with Time Warner Cable, which agreed to pay the Dodgers $8.35 billion over 25 years for exclusive local television rights. 

In November, the Department of Justice sued AT&T, alleging its DirecTV subsidiary had violated antitrust law by sharing information about SportsNet LA negotiations with other carriers.

With DirecTV as the “ringleader,” the government charged, cable and satellite companies could demand better deals from TWC without worrying that competitors would carry the channel.

“The ultimate result: many consumers in L.A. had fewer — or no — means by which to watch the Dodgers channel,” the lawsuit read.

AT&T has denied the charges and has asked a federal court to throw out the suit. In so doing, AT&T said the government had not alleged an agreement among competitors to freeze out SportsNet LA and had not proven that the channel would be on the air if not for the purported sharing of information.

TWC made an “extravagant bet” in paying the Dodgers so much money, AT&T said, and the asking price for SportsNet LA — a reported $5 per subscriber per month —was simply too high for a channel many viewers would not watch.

If the case is thrown out — a hearing is set March 13 — AT&T would appear to have little incentive to pick up the Dodgers channel. 

Beyond that, it is uncertain whether new Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions would support the DOJ in pursuing the suit. It also is uncertain how Sessions and the DOJ will proceed in AT&T’s proposed $85-billion purchase of Time Warner (a separate company from TWC), which owns HBO, CNN, Cartoon Network, TBS and Warner Bros.

On the campaign trail, President Trump said he would block the AT&T-Time Warner deal. He has made no such declarations since assuming office, but has said he intends to loosen business regulation.

If the deal were in danger, AT&T could try to improve its chances by agreeing to carry SportsNet LA. On the other hand, the DOJ does not demand in its lawsuit that AT&T be required to carry SportsNet LA.

The Dodgers’ pitchers and catchers report to training camp Wednesday, with the first of SportsNet LA’s 16 spring-training broadcasts scheduled Feb. 25. (The Angels will televise 34 spring games, primarily on FS West.)

Charter said it was “continuing to look into” streaming SportsNet LA broadcasts for subscribers. The broadcasts of all but three major league teams — the Dodgers, Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals — are available for streaming within the local market, provided fans already have a cable or satellite subscription.

For three years, Dodgers executives have hoped that the completion of mergers — a failed one between Comcast and TWC; and the successful ones between Charter and TWC, and between AT&T and DirecTV — would clear the way for SportsNet LA.

The team remains frustrated but hopes that the lawsuit can help break the stalemate.

"Charter has assured us that they stand ready to do a deal that would bring the channel to AT&T/DirecTV customers and other pay-TV customers at market rates," Dodgers President Stan Kasten said. 

"We are hopeful that after the allegations of the DOJ lawsuit become more widely known that a deal will be reached. A deal should be reached, it is long overdue.”

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

@BillShaikin

meg.james@latimes.com

@MegJamesLAT

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