Los Angeles Dodgers' fans will get to see legendary baseball announcer Vin Scully's final broadcasts under a deal Charter Communications announced Friday with local station KTLA-TV Channel 5.
But it's too early for some longtime baseball fans to celebrate: The odds remain long that the Dodgers' cable-TV channel will get wide distribution in Los Angeles anytime soon.
Most L.A.-area residents have been unable to regularly watch Dodgers games for more than two years because of a standoff over pricing and distribution involving the team-owned channel, SportsNet LA.
Charter Communications this spring took over operations of Time Warner Cable nationwide, and the Stamford, Conn., cable company inherited the $8.35-billion, 25-year contract with the Dodgers' ownership group, Guggenheim Baseball Management.
Time Warner Cable and the Dodgers tried to ignite talks before this year's baseball season to get other pay-TV providers — Cox Communications, Dish Network, Frontier Communications and AT&T, which owns DirecTV — to carry SportsNet LA.
The thinking was that other providers would be coaxed into carrying SportsNet LA to avoid depriving their baseball-fan customers from enjoying the final season of Scully, who is retiring next month after 67 years with the Dodgers.
But even Scully wasn't enough.
The other distributors refused to negotiate with Time Warner Cable, even after the firm lowered the price of the channel in an effort to end the dispute.
"We are now measuring this standoff in years — rather than weeks or even months," said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the USC Marshall School of Business.
Other pay-TV distributors have long chafed at the price of the channel — even at the reduced rate of about $3.50 per month, per subscriber home, for this season. Privately, they say many subscribers don't care enough about the Dodgers to switch TV providers, and that it made little sense to burden non-Dodger fan customers with the extra cost of a little-watched channel. Live regular-season Dodger games are carried six months of the year.
Many had hoped that Charter might be able to persuade other providers to carry the channel even after Time Warner Cable failed in its efforts.
But that hasn't happened either.
SportsNet LA launched in 2014 — two years after the pay-TV business appears to have peaked. Instead of loading up on pricey channels, distributors are working on ways to offer less expensive,"skinny" bundles to consumers.
SportsNet LA is not alone in feeling the wrath of pay-TV operators. This year cable giant Comcast Corp. dumped the YES network, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox and carries the New York Yankees games.
"We are not seeing a lot of people rallying around to pay several more dollars a month for another TV channel," Carter said. "I don't think anyone could have adequately forecast a few years ago just how fast these changes in viewership consumption would occur."
Even the king of TV sports — ESPN, which is owned by the Walt Disney Co. — has seen its subscriber base shrink by about 9 million homes since 2013, according to Nielsen data. ESPN currently is available in about 90 million pay-TV homes.
Charter's arrangement with KTLA-TV Channel 5 was designed to curb backlash over the stalled negotiations. Because KTLA is an over-the-air station, it is available in most homes in the region.
"The Dodger organization is very pleased that Charter was able to complete this deal with KTLA so that more fans can watch Vin Scully's final games," said Lon Rosen, the Dodgers' chief marketing officer.
Both SportsNet LA and KTLA, which is owned by Tribune Media, will carry the last six games announced by Scully, including the final home stand that begins Sept. 23 against the Colorado Rockies, and then the final three games of the season on the road against the San Francisco Giants. That series runs Sept. 30 — Oct. 2. The Dodgers have a slim lead over the Giants in the National League West and that race could go down to the wire.
The standoff has been costly. Time Warner Cable was losing nearly $150 million a year on the Dodger channel contract, and now Charter is on the hook for those losses.
Charter's new management team is expected to take another swing at breaking the deadlock next season.
"We know that they are working very hard to come up with a resolution to the distribution issue," Rosen said.
For the last two years, several members of Congress, including Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Los Angeles), have urged federal officials to get involved to resolve the impasse. Some fans have written the commissioner of Major League Baseball — all to no avail.
"This may not be the home run my colleagues and I had been writing to [Federal Communications Commission] Chairman [Tom] Wheeler about, but it certainly gets us on base," Cardenas joked Friday.
In recent months, Charter executives also have been mulling over whether they were better off using SportsNet LA as a marketing tool to encourage more sports fans to sign up for their TV service.
Charter's statements Friday suggest that is a possibility.
"This award-winning network is only available today through Charter, and providing this preview during Vin Scully's last few games is a great way to allow all Dodger fans to enjoy the legendary announcer as he closes out his iconic career," said Michael Bair, executive vice president of Charter's Spectrum Networks. "We're also looking forward to showcasing the network as a way to remind all Dodger fans who don't subscribe to Charter what they're missing."
Until last year, the Los Angeles Times and KTLA were part of the same company. Now they are owned by separate entities.