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Millions of Laker fans face blackout

Key distribs not on board for new Time Warner network

Halloween is poised to be truly frightening for swaths of Los Angeles Lakers TV viewers.

Wednesday brings the regular-season debut for Time Warner Cable’s two channels dedicated to the region’s most popular sports franchise. But as far as carriage negotiations between the provider and distributors including DirecTV, the mustard is off the hot dog, as legendary Laker broadcaster Chick Hearn would have said.

The dispute echoes the stalemate between DirecTV and the Pac-12 Networks, which remain absent from the leading satellite provider in Los Angeles, two months into the 2012-13 college sports season. That has meant no shortage of grumbling in the area, but that figures to turn into a full-throated roar if the Lakers don’t find their way into full distribution next week.

“We’re in continuous discussions with Time Warner Cable SportsNet to figure out how to carry the channel in a way that’s affordable for everyone,” a DirecTV spokesman said Thursday. “Time Warner Cable and DirecTV are the two largest TV providers serving Los Angeles, and as such both share a responsibility to ensure that both fans and non-fans alike avoid any extraordinary increases to their families¹ monthly bills.”

Carriage disputes are common in the current television age, but historically find speedy resolution once key deadlines arrive. But the Pac-12 scenario, combined with the recent 3 1/2-month breach between AMC and Dish that only resolved Sunday, offers some reason for pessimism.

Time Warner Cable defended itself Wednesday against arguments that — at a reported monthly $3.95 per subscriber — it was overcharging for Time Warner Cable SportsNet and Spanish-language companion Time Warner Cable Deportes, citing its own experience as a buyer in the marketplace. The channels also carry Los Angeles Galaxy soccer games and selected high school and college sports.

“Any assertion that we are the highest-priced regional sports outlet in the country is simply untrue,” Time Warner said. “As a significant buyer of regional sports across the country, we know that there are higher-priced regional sports networks, including Root Sports that we buy from DirecTV.”

However, DirecTV isn’t alone at balking at Time Warner’s current stance. Outside of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, the Laker-themed channels remain locked out of Dish, Cox Communications and Charter. Combined with DirecTV, that accounts for more than 4 million subscribers, more than half of the total households in the area that pay for television.

In this, the first season in decades that no local Laker broadcasts will appear on over-the-air station KCAL, fans of the team with cable or satellite won’t be left entirely in the lurch. More than a third of the Lakers’ regular season games — along with all potential playoff games for a team that features Kobe Bryant and All-Star imports Dwight Howard and Steve Nash — will be aired on national networks, starting with Tuesday’s season opener on TNT.

In its own statement, Cox suggested making the Laker networks available in a la carte fashion.

“The price for the Lakers is one of the highest wholesale prices that we have seen, especially when you consider it on a “per game” basis,” Cox said. “We are working through the negotiations process with Time Warner Cable SportsNet and hope we can come to an agreement that does not burden our customers with excessive price increases. We have offered to carry their channels on our optional digital tiers, which would enable those who want to pay for the programming to have it.”

That notion is a nonstarter with Time Warner.

“Cox and DirecTV know that there is no regional sports network anywhere in the country that is offered on an optional tier — that would be unprecedented,” Time Warner said. “If Cox or DirecTV choose not to carry our networks, we and their customers will be very disappointed, but we are confident there will be other alternatives for their customers to see this highly anticipated Lakers season.”

While Time Warner Cable would happily accept defectors from the satcasters, their overall goal remains broad exposure for the nascent sports channels, which were borne from a $3 billion, 20-year deal with the Lakers.

Among the long-range implications of the Lakers channels dispute is how it will affect the future of baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers on cable in Southern California. Fox is in an exclusive negotiating window with the Dodgers to extend their deal, but should the expiration date at the end of November pass without a pact, that would open the door for Time Warner to try adding the Dodgers to their twin networks and create an even more powerful offering for local viewers.

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