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Viewers fight for sports they want to see

Fans are often left out when sports channels fall victim to cable or satellite TV disputes.

April 21, 2007|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Helen Freeman is a second-generation New York Yankees fan whose mother was buried under a tombstone engraved with a baseball bat and the team's stylized "NY" logo. So the Anaheim resident was understandably upset when opening day came without an agreement between MLB and cable TV companies so that rabid fans could watch out-of-town games.

Baseball and the cable companies did come to terms a day into the season, but Freeman is still steaming: "I'm tired of these big corporations playing chess with each other to see who can get exclusive checkmate and be the top dog. Nobody is looking out for the consumer."

Freeman, though, had a friend in high places. U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who convened a congressional hearing and prodded MLB and cable company executives to reach a cable TV deal similar to what it previously had announced with DirecTV.

"I'm happy because it's good to see fans win one," Kerry said after the deal was reached. "Baseball is so much a part of the national fabric that making it exclusive [to one company or another] winds up denying the fan base something that consumers merit legitimate access to."

Most fans, though, largely are on their own when a sports channel falls victim to a cable or satellite TV rights dispute.

Dan Stuttgen, a self-described golf addict in Minneapolis, recently made nearly two dozen telephone calls to keep the Golf Channel from disappearing from his cable TV lineup during the week leading up to the Masters tournament. "I felt as if I was being held hostage," he said. "They can't do this to me, not during the week of the Masters."

Stuttgen, like Freeman, had the option of switching to a satellite TV provider that had access to Golf Channel and Extra Innings programming. A last-minute agreement kept Golf Channel programming flowing, but Stuttgen and Freeman both complained about their inability to get straight information about why their favorite channels were being threatened.

"It's like they don't know there's a consumer out there. It's all about the power grab -- who can own the most exclusives of all," Freeman said.

Cable television operators maintain that they're usually not to blame when programming disappears and point to skyrocketing rights fees that leagues, sports networks and other programming sources demand. "Bringing programming, whether it's golf or football, is something that we want to do. But you don't want to forget the cost issue," said Anita Lamont, spokeswoman for cable firm Charter Communications.

Leagues and sports channels counter that TV cable operators often heed their own financial interests rather than doing what's best for fans.

What's not open for debate is the crowded nature of the channel lineup.

In 2002, for example, Walt Disney Co. and Time Warner ended a nasty spat with the cable company making space for four ESPN channels; a new agreement signed last month made room for nine ESPN channels.

Such a diverse sporting interest as the U.S. Olympic Committee is talking about starting a channel, the Big Ten Conference is scheduled to launch its network in August, and regional sports networks abound. And there isn't room for all of the contenders in the most widely available cable packages.

Who pays for the glut of sports programming also is being debated.

The licensing fees collected last year by ESPN and the Fox Sports Network accounted for about a quarter of a cable operator's basic and digital tier programming costs, according to Jupiter Research. As rights fees rise, Jupiter Research added, pressure is on cable and satellite TV operators to charge different prices for "light" and "premium" sports packages.

Cable companies have spent nearly $1 billion in the past decade to build out their elaborate digital tiers. But programmers want to stay in the widely distributed packages because more eyeballs equate to more advertising.

Consumers, meanwhile, continue to get lost in the shuffle.

NFL Network now is available on many cable systems and in 41 million households, largely on the strength of strong consumer demand for all things football. But the impressive growth curve hasn't helped Charles Modica. Last summer, the 24-year-old Los Angeles resident hooked his new HD TV set into his cable box and settled in to watch some football.

Three weeks later, the NFL Network unexpectedly was replaced when Time Warner acquired Modica's cable provider. The NFL Network was dropped because Time Warner didn't have an agreement to carry NFL Network programming.

Modica frantically worked the phones to keep NFL Network's signal, but Time Warner was his only cable alternative and his downtown apartment won't accommodate a satellite dish.

Time Warner customers still don't have access to the extra NFL games, much to Modica's dismay.

"You don't really have much of an option," said Modica. "Particularly if you can't switch to another service."

Though Kerry is credited with using his position and power to nudge MLB and cable operators toward an agreement, he cautioned fans not to expect congressional intervention when the next, inevitable dispute occurs.

"We want to be sure that Congress is not inadvertently creating winners and losers," Kerry said. "You want a sort of neutrality in the marketplace where these decisions are made by fans, investors and the law of supply and demand."

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greg.johnson@latimes.com

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