Now in its fourth season, there's no end in sight for the Dodgers' TV blackout

Clayton Kershaw is scheduled to start for the Dodgers on Monday. In theory, the fans that cannot attend the game at Dodger Stadium can gather ‘round their television sets and enjoy another performance by the ace of the team and the face of a generation. Kershaw might well become the franchise’s first Hall of Fame player since Don Sutton, who last played for the team 29 years ago.

Alas, the Dodgers’ broadcasts go unseen by the majority of their fans. So do Kershaw’s heroics, including the Dodgers’ last no-hitter.

There is no end in sight to the dispute between DirecTV and Charter Communications, which inherited the mess when it bought Time Warner Cable. (Charter sells cable service under the Spectrum brand name.)

This is the fourth season of the Dodgers’ television blackout. The team has won the National League West in each of the previous three seasons. Meanwhile the team-owned SportsNet LA channel that carries the games has been unavailable in millions of homes in Southern California that don’t have Spectrum.

That does not mean that viewers in all those homes would tune in to the Dodgers’ games even if they could, of course. However, we can get an idea of the effect of the blackout by checking the ratings for the 10 games Charter and the Dodgers aired free on KTLA in April and May as simulcasts of the SportsNet LA broadcasts.

Has the blackout killed interest among a significant number of fans, or do people still want to watch the Dodgers?

They still want to watch. The average SportsNet LA broadcast this season has attracted 79,000 households. The 10-game KTLA package averaged 378,000 households, including the SportsNet LA viewers — an audience almost five times as large as the one for games aired only on the Dodgers’ channel.

How much of their cable television audience have the Dodgers lost since launching SportsNet LA?

About half, even counting recent improvement. In 2013, their last year on Prime Ticket — a channel available on all major cable and satellite systems in Southern California — the Dodgers averaged 154,000 households per game. The average this year reflects a 49% drop, but that’s up from the average of 57,000 households two years ago, when Charter bought Time Warner Cable and added SportsNet LA so customers of both cable companies could watch the channel.

How does that compare to other teams?

Cable and satellite ratings for every team this season are not available, but the Dodgers — in the second-largest market in the United States — ranked 15th among the 29 U.S. teams in the number of households that viewed games last season, directly behind the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles, teams that play in much smaller markets. The two New York teams led the way, each with an average audience close to three times larger than what the Dodgers had.

And the Angels? Have their ratings soared as the Dodgers’ blackout lingers?

Not any more. They have the best player in baseball, Mike Trout, and, unlike Kershaw, he plays every day. (He would, at least, if he were not on the disabled list now.) The Angels’ games air on Fox Sports West, a channel carried by every major cable and satellite system in town. And they still attract fewer viewers than the Dodgers’ games.

In 2014, the first season of the Dodgers’ blackout, the Angels averaged 107,000 households. That number has fallen every year since, to an average of 47,000 households this year. The Angels last made the playoffs in 2014. (Fox Sports West says the Orange County audience — measured as a part of the Los Angeles media market — is five times larger for the Angels this season than for the Dodgers.)

As long as the blackout remains in effect, why not put a few more Dodgers games on KTLA?

KTLA is interested in airing more games, but at this time Charter has no plans for additional simulcasts. The 10-game KTLA package was something of a free trial, intended to persuade fans to switch to Spectrum, hopefully in numbers significant enough to get DirecTV to strike a deal to carry SportsNet LA.

How many fans switched to Spectrum in April and May after the 10-game KTLA package?

Charter won’t say.

Charter is pitching Spectrum as the only place to see the Dodgers — “No Spectrum? No Dodgers!” — in its advertising. Are there a lot of Dodgers fans that have not switched?

Yes. The KTLA broadcasts were seen in an average of 105,000 DirecTV households and another 20,000 AT&T U-Verse households — in sum, half again as many households as see an average SportsNet LA broadcast. (AT&T is the parent company of DirecTV.)

Until DirecTV loses a critical mass of subscribers because it does not air the Dodgers, industry analysts say, there is little incentive for the company to pay Charter for the right to carry SportsNet LA.

So none of those Dodgers fans have complained to DirecTV about missing their team on TV?

Sure they have. They might even threaten to switch to Spectrum. But, whether the fans do not actually want to deal with the hassle of changing providers, or whether DirecTV persuades them to stay by giving them free NFL Sunday Ticket or other goodies, the bottom line is that too few have switched to affect DirecTV’s bottom line.

DirecTV has said it is interested in carrying SportsNet LA but Charter’s asking price is too high. When was the last time DirecTV had a negotiating session with Charter about SportsNet LA?

DirecTV won’t say.

Didn’t the Department of Justice sue DirecTV for collusion in keeping SportsNet LA off the air in as much of Southern California as possible?

Yes, but nothing much came out of it. The case was settled out of court. DirecTV was essentially put on five years’ probation, with no fine, and no requirement to carry SportsNet LA.

When the blackout first started, the asking price for SportsNet LA was about $5 per month per subscriber. So, if I get DirecTV, why can’t I just pay another $5 per month and get SportsNet LA?

The secret of cable television is that only a small percentage of viewers watches any particular channel. Charter had about 1.6 million households in the Los Angeles market last December, the most recent figure available.

That means that about 5% of Charter customers watched Dodgers games. If a similar ratio were to hold true for DirecTV, you’d have to pay $100 per month – not $5 – for Charter to make the same amount of money from DirecTV.

Major League Baseball is streaming selected games this season on Twitter and Facebook. Can I see the Dodgers that way?

The Dodgers played last Tuesday on Twitter, but you can’t catch the Dodgers on Twitter if you live in the Los Angeles area. That’s not the Dodgers’ fault; the league’s deal with Twitter is limited to “out-of-market live streaming.”

At this time, the Dodgers are not scheduled for any Facebook streaming, which is not allowed without the approval of the team and its local television partner. The “No Spectrum? No Dodgers!” strategy would be muddied by a “No Spectrum? No Dodgers, save for the occasional Facebook game” exception.

How did the Dodgers get into this mess?

Time Warner Cable agreed to pay the Dodgers a record $8.35 billion over 25 years in exchange for the exclusive right to sell SportsNet LA to other cable and satellite providers. But no carrier besides TWC and Charter agreed to carry SportsNet LA, with DirecTV the most prominent outlet to just say no.

Are the fans stuck with this contract for the next 21 years? Are the Dodgers exploring how they can modify the deal, or walk away from it in search of a deal that would end the blackout?

The Dodgers say it’s premature to conclude this deal doesn’t work if DirecTV won’t negotiate in what the team considers good faith.

If DirecTV and Charter ever do make a deal, would that satisfy all of the audience?

No. The games on KTLA were watched by an average of 44,000 households that do not subscribe to cable or satellite services.

How are those households classified?

“Rabbit ears.”

What are rabbit ears?

Go ask your parents.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin

MORE SPORTS NEWS

Dodgers Dugout: What areas are potential trouble spots?

Jerry West explains his move to the Clippers

Lakers wrapping up research on top picks while keeping trade options open

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
81°