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Calif. Dems Want FCC To Umpire Dodgers Dispute (Updated)

(Updated: 9:45 a.m. on July 29)

A number of Democrat members of Congress from California have asked the FCC to step in and mediate the dispute between Time Warner Cable and various distributors over carriage of the SportsNet LA, the television home of the Los Angeles Dodgers, saying that they fear it could set a precedent for "vertically integrated companies to hold consumers hostage to assert unfair market dominance."

The letter comes as AT&T is trying to get Washington approval of its deal to buy DirecTV and Comcast wants approval to merge with Time Warner Cable. 

For their part, Time Warner Cable and the Dodgers said they would be amenable to entering into binding arbitration as a means to end the carriate impasse with the nation's leading DBS provider.

Time Warner Cable launched SportsNet LA in February, but many distributors have complained about the price -- some reports put the monthly license fee at more than $4 per subscriber – especially when combined with three other RSNs in the market (Prime Ticket, Fox Sports West and Time Warner Cable SportsNet), and aren't taking the network. Time Warner Cable is paying some $8.35 billion over 25 years to the Dodgers' ownership and is handling affiliate negotiations for the rookie regional sports network.

In the letter to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, the legislators said they were increasingly concerned about the absence of the net on Cox and Charter and Suddenlink and Dish and DirecTV and Verizon FiOs and AT&T U-verse Signing on to the letter were Reps. Tony Cárdenas, Lucille Roybal-Allard, Alan Lowenthal, Brad Sherman, Linda Sánchez Julia Brown, Janice Hanh and Judy Chu.

They said that past the midpoint of the season, baseball fans remained in the dark, as well as unable to hear the iconic voice of sportscaster Vin Sculley calling the games, including Clayton Kershaw's no-hitter (pictured).

"The ongoing stalemate between Time Warner Cable and other pay-TV providers has reached a point where mediation by the FCC is necessary," they said. "Ensuring that homes throughout Los Angeles County have access to the broadcast of Dodgers games regardless of which cable or satellite company provides service in their areas is very important," they said.

For its part, Time Warner Cable said it is open to a legal assist, relative to DirecTV: "We are willing to enter into binding arbitration with DirecTV, and we appreciate the Congressman’s concern for Dodger fans. We prefer to reach agreements through private business negotiations, but given the current circumstance, we are willing to agree to binding arbitration and to allow DirecTV customers to watch the Dodgers games while the arbitration is concluded."

Noted Dodgers president and CEO Stan Kasten: “First, we'd like to thank the members of the California delegation, especially Congressman Brad Sherman, for putting our fans and their constituents first and doing their best to move this situation forward. We're very pleased that our partners at Time Warner Cable have readily agreed to submit SportsNet LA to binding arbitration, and we urge DirecTV to quickly agree so that we can get these games on the air for their customers.”

DirecTV was not immediately available for comment on Tuesday morning.

An FCC spokesperson on July 28 was checking on whether the chairman had received the letter at press time, but the commission is historically very reluctant to get in the middle of carriage disputes, even at the behest of Congress, beyond keeping in touch with the parties or adding its voice to th call for resolution in the interests of consumers.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.