Time Warner, DirecTV Squabble Over Dodgers TV Network

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The Dodgers launched a network to carry their games. But a dispute over broadcast fees and whether the network should be offered ala carte has kept it dark in 70 percent of the Los Angeles market.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Featuring a star-studded roster, baseball's Los Angeles Dodgers are more popular in their hometown now than they have been in years. There's just one problem. More than six weeks into the season, most of their fans still can't watch the games on TV.

From member station KPCC, Ben Bergman looks into the reasons why.

BEN BERGMAN, BYLINE: Magic Johnson, the part-owner of the Dodgers, was asked at a conference recently what's the top priority for his team?

MAGIC JOHNSON: First we gotta get on TV.

(LAUGHTER)

BERGMAN: So far, no luck. The Dodgers and the operator of their new regional sports network, Time Warner, keep striking out.

They've yet to make deals with any major providers, leaving about 70 percent of the region without games, unable to hear much of 86-year-old announcer Vin Scully, in what could be his last season.

(SOUNDBITE OF DODGER BASEBALL GAME)

VINCE SCULLY: ...one, two pitch, swung on, ground ball to short.

DAVID RONE: It's not what we envisioned. It's not what we hoped.

BERGMAN: David Rone is the president of Time Warner Cable Sports.

RONE: I think the best way to describe it is where a little confounded by what's going on. I mean it feels like DirecTV subscribers and Dodger fans are being sort of discriminated upon.

BERGMAN: That's ridiculous, says DirecTV chief content officer Dan York. He says the problem is simple. Time Warner is asking for far too much money to carry the channel, an estimated $4-plus per household, per month.

DAN YORK: This is far and away the most expensive one-team regional sports network we've ever been offered.

BERGMAN: DirecTV controls about 30 percent of the L.A. market, and other providers seem to be waiting behind them to make a deal. And they could be waiting awhile.

Things have gotten so bad between DirecTV and Time Warner that they can't even agree whether they're still negotiating. Time Warner's Rone says DirecTV walked away.

RONE: We are not in direct negotiations with DirecTV at this moment.

BERGMAN: Well, that's not what they say.

YORK: I understand that and obviously, people have different points of view. But unfortunately for us, we are not having substantive negotiations with direct TV at this moment.

BERGMAN: DirecTV isn't willing to pay as much as Time Warner wants because its internal research shows that most of its subscribers in L.A. aren't all that interested in watching baseball.

So York has asked to carry the Dodgers a la carte.

YORK: Rather than denying access to the folks that really want to see those games, why not give those folks that are willing to pay the option to pay for those games?

BERGMAN: But for Time Warner, agreeing to a la carte is a non-starter.

Rone fears offering sports channels individually could send shockwaves through the pay TV industry, which makes you pay for dozens of channels bundled together.

RONE: It's just not the way it's done.

BERGMAN: Time Warner needs to have the Dodgers channel available in as many homes as possible, whether they ever watch a game or not, in order to recoup its $8.3 billion investment.

Rone says fans should be happy with the contract because it's allowed the team to spend big.

RONE: You have to think about what the Dodgers are doing with that money. I mean they've got the most expensive payroll in all of baseball.

BERGMAN: Actually, it's the most expensive payroll in all of sports, in the whole world, according to ESPN. But if fans can't watch their $241 million team, does it matter?

(SOUNDBITE OF FANS AT DODGER GAME)

BERGMAN: On a recent night in the nosebleed seats at Dodger Stadium, Terry Rios said she's fed up with not being able to see her favorite team on TV.

TERRY RIOS: I mean this is crazy. I blame Time Warner. It's all just corporate greed.

BERGMAN: Standing nearby, Gilda Lopez said she's trying to be at peace with the new reality of being a Dodger fan. You have to go old-school; either listen to the game on the radio or come here to the stadium.

GILDA LOPEZ: Well, I grew up at a time where you could listen to it or appreciate the game by radio, so I'm kind of reliving those days. So right now it's all about AM.

BERGMAN: It's something Lopez might want to get used to. After the New York Yankees started their network, three million Cablevision subscribers missed the entire 2002 season.

The two sides reached a deal just minutes before the first pitch of the next season, only after Mayor Bloomberg and Attorney General Spitzer intervened.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Bergman in Los Angeles.

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