Cabler to launch two regional sports channels for games starting 2012-13

In a major shift on the Los Angeles televised sports landscape, Time Warner Cable has acquired rights to distribute local broadcasts of Los Angeles Lakers games in a 20-year deal beginning with the 2012-13 NBA season.

Time Warner Cable will launch English- and Spanish-language sports networks showcasing the franchise, taking away the rights to live game broadcasts from current broadcasters KCAL Channel 9 and Fox Sports Net.

TWC is not keeping the channels exclusive to its own subscribers. Rather, it will make them available to all satellite, cable and telco distributors in the Lakers’ territory, which includes all of Southern California, Nevada and Hawaii.

National broadcast contracts on ABC/ESPN and TNT are unaffected, but 2011-12 will be the last season of local over-the-air broadcasts of the Lakers in Los Angeles.

“We are aiming for full and complete distribution with all distributors,” Time Warner Cable exec veep and chief programming officer Melinda Witmer told Variety.

The networks are scheduled to launch in fall 2012, in time for the start of the NBA preseason in October.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed. For comparison’s sake, ESPN recently contracted to create a not dissimilar network focused on U. of Texas sports for $300 million over 20 years — despite obtaining rights to as few as one live football game per year.

The two-time defending NBA champion Lakers feature perennial All-Star Kobe Bryant and are one of the marquee franchises of the NBA.

There are concerns that labor strife could cause the postponement or cancellation of games in the 2011-12 season, but that does not figure to affect the creation of these networks — and certainly didn’t cause any hesitation on Time Warner’s part.

“We reached out to talk to the Lakers,” Witmer said. “We understood the rights would be coming up for availability, and we had some ideas about what we might be able to do with the team in the future.

“This was a quick romance,” she added. “Finishing on Valentine’s Day, this was a whirlwind romance.”

Tim Harris, the Lakers’ senior veep of business operations and chief marketing officer, told Variety the team had been engaging in conversations with KCAL and Fox while remaining open to other possibilities.

“When we had our first discussions with the Time Warner folks,” Harris said, “the thing that really kept driving us forward, there was this synergy, and the best way I could describe it is … more Lakers. As we discussed conceptually and thought of what we might be able to do together, this concept of more Lakers kept coming to the forefront. We’re going to collectively be able to do more Lakers, and more Lakers is beneficial to Laker fans.”

The dual high-def networks will offer pregame, postgame, behind-the-scenes, magazine and historical programming. The Spanish-language game broadcasts will be separate productions, rather than sharing video with an SAP feed, and will have their own complementary programming including dedicated pregame and postgame shows.

“This long-term agreement,” Time Warner Cable chairman and CEO Glenn Britt said, “allows us to secure great ‘must-have’ content for our customers in an advantageous arrangement that affords us greater control over our own economic destiny for decades to come. We’ll be able to fully leverage our experience in local and regional programming.”

While the Lakers will be the dominant feature on the two networks, Time Warner plans to fill out the programming slate with some non-Lakers sports content as well as lifestyle programming tailored to Southern Californians. Nothing specific had been announced, however.

“We’ve got 18 months to get the channels up and running,” Witmer said.

The dedicated Spanish-language regional sports network is a first in U.S. broadcasting, a development that Lakers owner Jerry Buss said he was “particularly proud” of.

The new deal marks the first change in Laker local broadcast rights in more than a generation. Laker road games (except for the national broadcasts carried by ABC, ESPN or TNT) have been on Channel 9 in Los Angeles since 1977, and Fox Sports Net has carried most home games for the team since the 1980s.

“Fox made an offer to the Lakers that would have paid them one of the highest local TV rights fees in professional sports,” a Fox spokesperson said. “We did not believe that going higher was in the best interest of our business or pay TV customers in Los Angeles, who will bear the cost of this deal for years to come.”

Said Harris: “When you look at the Lakers, we like long-term relationships. Any time we are going to make a change, we do so very carefully and we think very seriously about it. This new venture is not in any way an indictment against KCAL or Fox. We’ve been partners with both those companies for a long time, and we will continue to be partners with them through the end of the deals. They do a great job of putting games on and shepherding the brand.”

No announcement was made about whether this would affect Lakers TV announcers Joel Meyers and Stu Lantz, who are employed by the team.

“We’ve been focusing on getting this done,” Harris said, “and once the dust settles, we’ll start looking at things like announcers.”

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