The Federal Communications Commission wagged its finger at Time Warner Cable (TWC) on Tuesday over TWC’s handling of negotiations with other regional cable providers for SportsNet LA, the network that carries Los Angeles Dodgers games. “Your actions appear to have created the inability of consumers in the Los Angeles area to watch televised games of the Los Angeles Dodgers,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote in an open letter to TWC Chief Executive Robert Marcus. On the other side of the country, meanwhile, a dispute between the Washington Nationals and the Baltimore Orioles over cable-TV carriage has spilled into court and raised the specter of service disruptions there.
The two fights are quite different, yet both highlight a strange reality for today’s baseball fans: The best way to watch your local team on television might just be from beyond its home market.
In Los Angeles, Time Warner Cable is demanding a fat monthly fee of $4 per cable subscriber and a spot in basic cable packages for SportsNet LA, the Dodger-owned network that it paid $8.35 billion to control. Other cable providers have refused these terms, and the stalemate leaves 70 percent of the market without access to Dodgers games, according to the FCC.
The East Coast fight goes back to 2005 when the Nationals—formerly the Montreal Expos—arrived in what had been the TV territory of the Baltimore Orioles. To compensate the Orioles, Major League Baseball granted the team’s regional sports network, MASN, the right to carry Nationals games at a discounted rate until 2012. Now that the discount period has ended, the two sides can’t agree on a market rate.
While Dodgers fans in Los Angeles go without and MASN viewers wonder what’s coming for the Nationals broadcasts, Dodgers and Nationals fans living in the rest of the country can enjoy telecasts whenever they want and on any device—TV, tablet, phones, and computers—without even paying for basic cable. For $130 a year, subscribers to MLB.TV can watch any out-of-market games online. The fortunate out-of-market fan can start telecasts at his leisure, toggle between games in real time, and in some cases watch without the nuisance of commercials between innings. It’s a peak into the fairytale future of TV beyond the grip of the cable companies (unless, of course, you still need one to get high-speed Internet).
MLB is the author of both this online panoply and the frustration of local fans. MLB.TV is a service of the league’s Advanced Media wing, a pioneering tech company that streams all manner of live programming online. And the pricing power of teams in their local cable markets is a product of the league’s government-backed policy of dividing the country into regional monopolies. MLB, in other words, is all about access as long as it doesn’t threaten the TV-right fees that continue to drive revenue growth, despite the league’s aging audience and flat attendance.
In the dispute between the Orioles and Nationals, the league is on the side of higher prices. And fans in North Carolina, which the league counts as Nationals and Orioles territory, have been collateral damage in a long-running carriage dispute. The league has declined to lift blackout restrictions for MLB.TV subscribers there. So the gap persists between what technology makes possible and what entrenched interests will allow. There is one market for local fans organized around hostage taking and product lock-in—and another for everyone else that provides a flexible service for a rather reasonable fee.
The message is clear: Move far away from your favorite team. Or, if you can’t do that, try making it look like you did by disguising your location online.