FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, in a strongly worded letter to Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus, said that the agency “will intervene as appropriate” to resolve the dispute that has kept the Dodgers unavailable to some 70% of viewers in the Los Angeles region.
His letter on Tuesday follows calls from members of Congress for the FCC to mediate the dispute between Time Warner Cable and other multichannel providers, including DirecTV. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and five other lawmakers have called on Time Warner Cable and DirecTV to enter into binding arbitration, something that TWC and the team have agreed to do.
But Wheeler’s letter to Marcus appeared to pin the blame on TWC for letting the dispute linger for so long.
“While I am encouraged by TWC’s willingness to enter into arbitration, I am troubled by the negative impact that your apparent actions are having on consumers and the overall video marketplace,” Wheeler wrote. “The FCC will continue to monitor this dispute closely and will intervene as appropriate necessary to bring relief to consumers.”
Wheeler went on to request that Time Warner Cable provide a written explanation of the arbitration process as proposed, how it will bring “relief to consumers expeditiously,” and other steps TWC will take to resolve the matter if arbitration is not successful.
He also chides Time Warner Cable for ignoring calls from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and California Attorney General Kamala Harris to resolve the impasse.
While stopping short of an investigation, Wheeler asked Time Warner Cable to provide unredacted copies of contracts it has with SportsNet LA, as well as term sheets that it and other multichannel providers have circulated in negotiations for carriage. In the letter to Marcus, he also cited provisions of the Communications Act prohibiting cable operators and affiliated channels from unfair competition that have the “purpose or effect” of preventing other multichannel providers from providing satellite cable programming to consumers. He also cited laws prohibiting price discrimination.
“Because of TWC’s exclusive hold on SportsNet LA and the limited options that exist to view Dodgers games online, I am also concerned about the negative impact this dispute may have on the growth of broadband services in the Los Angeles area,” he wrote.
Wheeler talked with Marcus on Tuesday, according to an FCC spokeswoman, along with Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).
“I continue to have the hope that this dispute can be resolved in the marketplace,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, given the breadth and protracted nature of this dispute, it is appropriate that we begin to assemble the facts and build a record. Inaction is no longer acceptable.”
Update: Time Warner Cable issued a statement in which it said they were “grateful for the FCC’s intervention and happy to work with them to gain carriage for the Dodgers — that has been our goal all along.” They also appear confident in their legal standing, defending their negotiations in like with pacts for other regional sports networks. “We hope that Chairman Wheeler is making similar inquiries of DirecTV and other LA television distributors to determine their rationale for refusing to carry SportsNet LA, which we have offered at terms similar to other regional sports networks, including those owned by DirecTV. We look forward to a productive discussion.”
Comcast’s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is currently pending before the Department of Justice and the FCC.