Time Warner Cable’s broadcasts of Lakers games set for tipoff
Steve Nash and Dwight Howard aren’t the only new players on the Lakers’ roster this season. The storied Los Angeles franchise also has a new local TV partner: Time Warner Cable.
For the Lakers, teaming up with Time Warner Cable is about getting more offense. The cable giant is poised to spend many millions on more programming and promotion devoted to the National Basketball Assn. team than previous rights holders Fox Sports West and KCAL-TV.
But Time Warner Cable’s play is strictly a defensive move. Tired of paying big bucks for sports networks, the cable company decided to start its own and cut out the middle man. On Oct. 1, it is launching the English-language SportsNet and the Spanish-language Deportes — with the Lakers as their marquee asset.
“This is very reflective of what is going on in the ecosystem,” said sports media consultant Chris Bevilacqua. “The mother of all battles is for control of the customer.”
For Time Warner Cable, this is no small bet. Although neither the company nor the Lakers would comment on the terms of their 20-year rights deal, industry insiders estimate the value at $3 billion. Time Warner Cable spent an additional $55 million for rights to the Galaxy soccer team for 10 years, and more than $30 million building a facility with three studios in El Segundo to house the networks.
Time Warner Cable has more on its shopping list and is eyeing the Dodgers, whose deal with Fox’s Prime Ticket expires next season.
But, to make the channels pay off, Time Warner Cable must get other distributors in the area to carry the networks as well. So far none is rushing to sign a contract.
Time Warner Cable is hoping its heavy investment in original programming beyond the games and forgoing infomercials — which fill most local sports channels when a game isn’t on and provide a steady stream of cash — will help sell the networks to other distributors.
The new shows include “Backstage Lakers,” which is modeled after HBO’s critically acclaimed series “Hard Knocks,” which follows an NFL team through training camp. “Backstage Lakers” will take fans to previously off-limits areas, including the executive suites and locker rooms.
Also in the lineup is “Floor Seats,” an interview program that will showcase the Lakers’ celebrity fan base, and “Laker Girls,” a reality show about the team’s famous eye candy.
Deportes — which will have its own reporting team and crew instead of a dubbed simulcast of the English-language broadcast of Lakers and Galaxy coverage — will also feature boxing and wrestling as well as the weekly series "#LaPrepa” about local high school sports.
Although the channels are 100% owned by Time Warner Cable, the Lakers have a lot of editorial control, including final cut over “Backstage Lakers” and other shows about the franchise. It’s common for local sports channels to cede some editorial control to teams, but this agreement seems particularly restrictive.
“The approval rights were born out of a desire to be more involved in how our brand is portrayed,” said Tim Harris, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of the Lakers.
The team, he added, isn’t opening its doors to Time Warner Cable so it can act like TMZ.
“We certainly don’t want someone we’ve allowed in the door just sniffing for a scoop,” Harris said.
Time Warner Cable is on the same page.
“The Laker relationship is transcendent,” said Mark Shuken, senior vice president and general manager of Time Warner Sports Regional Networks.
The channels, he promised, “will share the truth” with viewers, but it will do so in partnership with the Lakers. “We would make sure their viewpoint is represented.”
The Lakers also have a lot of sway over who will cover the team, as evidenced by Time Warner Cable’s backtracking on hiring former Boston Red Sox reporter Heidi Watney. Although Shuken said the decision to sever ties with Watney was between her and Time Warner Cable, the Lakers made it clear that they were not comfortable with the hire.
All that Harris would say was, “When it comes to the talent, we would certainly like to be simpatico.”
A call to Watney seeking comment was not returned. Her Twitter home page features the famous Thomas Paine quote: “Reputation is what men and women think of us; character is what God and angels know of us.”
With more than 2.3 million subscribers in the region, Time Warner Cable is the largest pay-TV distributor in the region. But for the new channels to succeed, they need to be carried by other local distributors, such as satellite broadcasters DirecTV and Dish Network as well as Cox, Charter and Verizon — none of which has signed up yet.
Time Warner Cable won’t divulge what it is seeking for the two channels, but people familiar with the situation said the price tag is as much as $3.95 per subscriber per month for both channels depending on what part of Southern California a distributor serves. That’s more than what Fox Sports West, which previously had the Lakers, charged. It is also more than Prime Ticket charges. Those channels have far more sports — Dodgers, Angels, Clippers, Kings and Ducks — than SportsNet and Deportes.
“We understand that the Lakers are popular sports programming, but that programming comes at an extremely high price,” a Cox spokesman said. “Our goal is to provide Cox customers with the best TV experience at the most reasonable price.”
Spokespeople for DirecTV, Dish and Charter offered similar comments.
Shuken isn’t sweating yet. Negotiations between distributors and program suppliers typically heat up only when a deadline is approaching. The channels go live Monday, but the first regular-season Lakers game on the channels isn’t until Oct. 31.
“We assume there will be some conversations into October. That’s natural,” Shuken said.
And sports fans and pay-TV subscribers will be caught in the middle.
“It’s going to be a very high-profile public negotiation, and at the end of the day we’ll be in our cars listening to radio ads with each side calling the other evil personified,” predicted David Carter, executive director of USC’s Sports Business Institute. “Ultimately it will cost more to the consumers.”
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