Viewers are Powerless in TV Carriage Disputes

DodgersHostageTelevision carriage disputes – fights between TV providers over the right to carry content – occur frequently. Most of the time, they are accompanied by public relations efforts meant to activate viewers to get involved in the dispute so they don’t lose their content. In 2009, Time Warner Cable placed several ransom note-style newspaper ads that said, “Pay our price or you’ll never see FOX again.” Viacom once placed an ad featuring Dora the Explorer, which said, “Why is Dora Crying?” The answer: Time Warner Cable (TWC) was going to take her off of the air unless viewers called to complain. Similar PR battles were triggered by other carriage disputes, and they all included a call-to-action for viewers to get involved.

In response to a 2013 carriage dispute between TWC and CBS, Lear Center Director Marty Kaplan said, “You wouldn’t realize from these campaign-style ads that what’s really at stake is money. Your money. Both CBS and TWC want more of it. They’re probably going to get it. The only issue — which this battle is about — is how they’ll divvy up what they pick from our pockets.”

Obviously, fans and viewers are not the primary concern of these companies. USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society Director Daniel Durbin says, “Fans are really cattle that are bought and sold by ownership” in a new documentary on the Dodgers dispute called Moneyball Too.

Even though these battles are obviously not meant to benefit the consumer, I still thought that viewers did possess some power to influence the outcome. It is the equivalent to calling your congressperson; I figured that if enough viewers called or tweeted, it would help resolve the dispute.

So when 70% of Los Angeles residents weren’t going to be able to watch my beloved Dodgers play on their new Time Warner Cable station in 2014, I immediately called DIRECTV to threaten to leave unless they carried the Dodgers’ new network. They explained that Time Warner was trying to charge them too much for the station, and they offered me hundreds of dollars in discounts to stay. At this point, it was unclear who the villain was – all of the dollar figures of the proposed deal were still private, so fans didn’t know if they should be mad at Time Warner, or at DIRECTV and other carriers. I was bummed that I couldn’t watch my favorite team, but I was not mad at DIRECTV because they gave me deep discounts.

Most carriage disputes end quickly. Los Angeles fans had just gone through this with the Lakers’ new channel, which had a dispute end hours before the season began. I think fans were trained to think that there was no way they were going to let a World Series contender not play on TV for most of the city.

Inexplicably, the Dodgers have now begun the third straight season of not playing on TV for most of Los Angeles. I no longer think viewers have any power in the situation.

The last time I called DIRECTV (now owned by AT&T) to threaten to leave over the Dodgers, they didn’t offer me any discounts. Instead, they told me what my substantial cancellation fee was and asked how I would like to pay it. Either they were used to Dodgers fans bluffing on these calls, or they simply didn’t care if I left anymore.

There is now a clear villain for fans. While DIRECTV doesn’t care if fans leave, Time Warner and the Dodgers send out regular emails offering fans $300 to switch over to Time Warner.

Time Warner has also gone public with the financial details of the dispute. They were asking DIRECTV for $4.90 per subscriber, which would have been among the highest asking prices for a regional sports network. Before this season, Time Warner reduced the amount to a fair $3.50. DIRECTV accused them of reducing the price for a year and then inflating it for subsequent years. So Time Warner presented a fair $3.84 six-year deal, which DIRECTV also turned down immediately. Time Warner said they give up, and there is now no chance at a deal.

What happened to the purported power of the consumer? While it seems like every Dodgers fan I know is angry about this, I only counted 2,037 tweets using the official #IWantMyDodgers hashtag. Clearly not enough fans left DIRECTV in order to successfully pressure them to do anything. Perhaps if more viewers complained or left, it would have made a difference? I doubt it.

DIRECTV has drawn a line in the sand, and I don’t necessarily blame them. Cable and satellite providers have to be terrified of the future. Fifteen per cent of Americans have already cut the cord, and more are on the way. Twitter won the rights to stream Thursday Night Football this year, and President Obama is urging the FCC to disrupt the cable set-top box industry. Providers like DIRECTV know their days are numbered, so they are less eager to negotiate than to pile up profits before the inevitable fall.

Viewers may not have the power to influence these negotiations, but they do have the power to figure out how to get the content they want through other means. Many Dodgers fans have figured out that if they pay $130 for the MLB.tv App and they pay $5 to mask their IP address, they can still watch every game regardless of who their provider is.

Graphic by Roger Arrieta of DodgersBeat.com

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