Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is asking federal regulators to examine the stalemate between Time Warner Cable and other pay-TV operators that’s prevented much of the region from watching Dodgers baseball this season.
Garcetti’s request came late Monday in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission, which is reviewing cable giant Comcast Corp.'s proposed $45-billion takeover of Time Warner Cable.
A combination of the two companies would make Comcast the dominant pay-TV operator in the Los Angeles region with 1.8 million customers.
Monday was the deadline for people to voice their opposition or support on the proposed merger to the FCC, which was deluged with thousands of comments.
Some two-thirds of the Los Angeles area has been unable to watch most Dodgers games this season because Time Warner Cable has not reached a deal with the region’s other cable and satellite operators. Comcast would inherit Time Warner Cable’s expensive contract to distribute SportsNet LA on behalf of the Dodgers organization, which owns the channel.
“The Dodgers are a key part of the fabric of this City, and Dodgers games with the legendary Vin Scully in the broadcast booth have traditionally been available to viewers throughout this region at no extra charge,” Garcetti wrote in the letter to the FCC. “That is not true this year.”
Garcetti stopped short of asking the FCC to demand resolution of the Dodgers channel impasse as a condition for the government’s approval of the deal.
But the mayor did ask the FCC to delve into programming disputes and “determine why the problem has not been resolved already, and then ask Comcast to show that the merger would alleviate, and not exacerbate, problems of this sort.”
Until now, Comcast has been on the sidelines in the furor over the Dodgers channel.
But Time Warner Cable remains the only pay-TV operator in Southern California offering SportsNet LA, and it has been unable to get other pay-TV providers to carry the channel. There are only five weeks remaining in the regular season, and chances of a resolution are increasingly slim.
Comcast must secure the government’s blessing to buy Time Warner Cable, and it might agree to a compromise that would introduce the Dodgers channel into millions of new homes in Southern California. The proposed merger isn’t expected to be approved until early next year.
Competing pay-TV operators, including DirecTV, Charter Communications Inc., Dish Network Corp. and Cox Communications Inc., have said the price to carry the channel is too high. To become the distributor of SportsNet LA, Time Warner Cable agreed to an $8.35-billion contract over 25 years, according to a valuation by the Dodgers and Major League Baseball.
To help recoup its costs, Time Warner Cable has asked other carriers to pay about $4.50 a month per subscriber household in Los Angeles, according to consulting firm SNL Kagan. But DirecTV and others have said that is too much for a channel that showcases one team and televises games for only half the year.
“We owe it to the people of Los Angeles to assure that further consolidation will improve their lives,” Garcetti said in the letter.
Garcetti also asked the FCC to require Comcast to continue to follow so-called net neutrality guidelines to treat all Internet traffic equally. He also requested that the FCC encourage Comcast to increase its commitment to provide low-cost Internet service to more low-income families.
Comcast provides inexpensive Internet service to poor families through a program called Internet Essentials. It says it has about 1.4 million subscribers in Chicago, Philadelphia and other markets.
“Unfortunately, that program has not worked well,” Garcetti wrote in the letter. “The potential significance of such a program in Los Angeles is undeniable. It is estimated that as many as 30% of all Angelenos do not have Internet access. But to be effective, the program needs improvements.”
Satellite TV giant Dish Network and the TV channel WeatherNation also expressed opposition Monday, as did dozens of activist groups and consumer watchdogs, including Consumers Union, the Greenlighting Institute, the Harry Potter Alliance and Writers Guild of America, West.
Most of the groups contend that Comcast already was a colossus, and the government shouldn’t allow it to gain even more power. Many groups expressed concern that Comcast would become the gatekeeper of the Internet because it would provide high-speed Internet service to nearly 40% of the country.
Acquiring Time Warner Cable would give Comcast nearly 30 million pay-TV and high-speed Internet subscribers.
“The merger would create a telecommunications and pay-TV entity of unprecedented size and scope,” the consumer group Free Press said in a statement. “Its control over high-speed Internet services would eclipse the power once held by the monopoly Bell system.”
The Writers Guild of America, West, which is based in Los Angeles, noted that four years ago it objected to Comcast’s takeover of media company NBCUniversal, which includes the NBC broadcast network, movie studio Universal Pictures and cable channels USA, Bravo, Syfy, MSNBC and CNBC. Regulators allowed Comcast to buy NBCUniversal, making it one of a handful of media companies that own broadcast networks and a major Hollywood studio.
“Comcast has used its market power to harm content competitors on both traditional and online content platforms,” the Writers Guild said.
Comcast defended its record.
“As we’ve said from the outset, we believe this is an approvable transaction and we expect to agree with regulators on conditions that will further enhance the public interest while not being unduly burdensome on our business or consumers,” Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen wrote Monday in a blog post. “As we have described in detail, our getting bigger is better for consumers.”
Cohen noted that because Comcast and Time Warner Cable do not operate in the same markets, the deal would not be anti-competitive. The FCC is simultaneously looking at Comcast’s plan to take over some of Charter Communications’ markets, including in Los Angeles.
Some of the activists cited the escalating trend of media consolidation. Within three months of Comcast announcing its proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable, AT&T Inc. unveiled its $49-billion offer for satellite TV giant DirecTV, based in El Segundo.
“That Time Warner and Comcast’s efforts toward a consolidated media are destructive for freedom and democracy should come as no surprise to millennials,” said Andrew Slack, the head of the Harry Potter Alliance, part of a movement demanding an open Internet. “Growing up with Harry Potter, we were exposed to a wizarding world whose consolidated media led to Voldemort gaining power.... Thankfully the heroes of our favorite stories have successfully fought media consolidation. ... So will we.”