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It could be a long time before you see the Dodgers on TV; Time Warner/DirecTV can't even agree if they're negotiating

Time Warner Cable Sports President David Rone says neither he nor the Dodgers foresaw such a long standoff with distributors.
Time Warner Cable Sports President David Rone says neither he nor the Dodgers foresaw such a long standoff with distributors. "It's not what we envisioned," he said.
Ben Bergman/KPCC

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It's a sign of how bad it's gotten between DirecTV and Time Warner Cable: they two companies don't agree on whether they're still negotiating to carry the new all-Dodgers channel, Time Warner Cable Sportsnet LA. 

"We are not in negotiations with DirecTV at this moment," Time Warner Cable Sports President David Rone told KPCC Friday.

RELATED: Where can you watch Dodger games in the LA area?

"That is not at all accurate," countered Dan York, DirecTV's Chief Content Officer. "We're in talks. We have made subsequent suggestions and proposals to them."

York said he or his deputies are talking every few days with representatives from Time Warner, but Rone countered that in reality, any substantive negotiations ended.

"As you can imagine, there's a lot of ways you can say that we're talking," said Rone. "If I place a phone call to you, or if I ask you a question, that can be defined as we're talking."

Bottom line: Now one month into the season, DirecTV and Time Warner Cable appear to be farther apart then ever, which isn't just bad news for DirecTV subscribers, who make up about 25 percent of Southern California pay-TV customers. It's bad for everyone else who isn't on Time Warner, too, because if DirecTV doesn't make a deal, other providers like Cox and Charter have much less incentive to make one, because customers who want the Dodgers don't have another service to switch to.

Far apart on price

DirecTV declined to go into details on the numbers but said it has an offer on the table it feels is more than generous.

Time Warner also declined to give specifics but says it's pricing the channel fairly, in line with what other regional sports networks charge – including ones owned by DirecTV.

"I don't agree that we have the most expensive regional sports network," said Rone. 

DirecTV sees it differently.

"This is far and away the most expensive one-team regional sports network we've ever been offered," said York. "In over 25 years of working in this space, I've never seen a pricing reset like we've seen with the Dodgers."

DirecTV is keeping careful track of how many subscribers are leaving, and said it's fewer than they expected – only a handful of customers a day. DirecTV believes as the standoff continues, it has the advantage, because the diehard Dodger fans that would have cancelled their subscriptions would have already done so. Time Warner believes that once the NBA playoffs are over in June and more people pay attention to baseball, it has the advantage.

Time Warner is trying to increase the pressure on DirecTV, recently adding a promotion giving customers who switch to Time Warner a $300 gift card. 

Leaving out fans who don't subscribe to Time Warner

Rone said he's baffled no major provider has agreed to carry Sportsnet LA, especially given how popular the Dodgers are right now, still buoyed by last year's season that saw them come within two games of The World Series. According to Rone, Time Warner has no regrets over signing a reported $8.35 billion deal with the Dodgers to operate Sportsnet LA. 

"We can now assure Time Warner Cable subscribers that for the next 25 years they're going to get Dodgers baseball. If we chose to rent that, our customers would be subject to not having the programming, just like other subscribers are."

It's a deal that at least for now, is leaving those other subscribers out in the dark, not to mention the 672,789 households in L.A. that, according to SNL Kagan, still watch TV via antenna, and for the first time this season aren't able to watch any Dodger games.

"The Dodgers decided what would most benefit their fans is to create a 24/7, all-Dodgers, all-the-time, immersive Dodger baseball experience on television," said Rone.

On a recent night at Dodger stadium, fans expressed frustration over not getting to watch their team on TV.

"Way to go Dodgers," said Dodger fan Joe McMurray, sarcastically, as he stood high above the field, on the top deck of the stadium. "Everywhere from home to work, to anywhere I'm at, doesn't have it. The games are never on. It's petty and pathetic. As a fan of baseball, you should be able to watch any game, especially in your hometown."

As a DirecTV customer, McMurray said he wouldn't be switching to Time Warner.

"I don't know if it's side A or side B who's wrong, but I'd rather not switch over just to watch a Dodger game," said McMurray.

Another DirecTV customer standing near the concession stand said she wouldn't be subscribing to Time Warner anytime soon either.

"I blame Time Warner," said Terry Rios.  "I feel like it's corporate greed. They just assume everyone is going to jump on the bandwagon. Not us. I'd rather come to a game then pay them a monthly fee to have cable."

A 'seismic' shift for cable/satellite industry?

DirecTV says given the high cost of the Dodgers channel, providers ought to be able to offer Sportsnet LA on an ala carte basis.

"When the proposed price for any network for broad carriage on our base package is far too expensive, we think that rather than deny 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?" said York.

DirecTV's desire to carry Sportsnet ala carte has been interpreted by some, including LA Times columnist David Lazarus, as a possibly huge shakeup for the pay-TV industry;

When DirecTV says it would rather offer a pricey new sports channel to customers on an a la carte basis, that's a move with potentially seismic consequences.

The same thinking would logically apply to ESPN, the Golf Channel, Nickelodeon, MTV and the dozens of other channels that may not appeal to all pay-TV subscribers.

DirecTV is standing atop the slipperiest of slippery slopes, and its industry chums are cautiously crowding in behind it.

Not so fast, said York; He sees Sportsnet LA as a special case.

"True retail ala carte would definitely be a sea change for the industry." said York. "We're not advocating ala carte for every channel. We're just suggesting that when the price for broad carriage, is so high, as it is in this case, that maybe we need to consider there are other packaging alternatives."

For Time Warner and the Dodgers though, the math simply wouldn't work; It's much more lucrative charging four or five dollars for every household in the region, whether they ever watch a Dodger game or not. Time Warner also sees DirecTV's ala carte proposal as hypocritical.

"It's not the model with regional sports networks," said Rone. "It's interesting DirecTV is talking about ala carte carriage yet they own three regional sports networks themselves, and they don't offer those ala carte. That's all we're asking for for Dodger fans."

Rone adds: "It's simply not the way it's done."