15 years later, can we compare the ’12 TWC SportsNet-Lakers launch to the ’97 FSW2-Dodgers’ debate?

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It happened in the middle of August, 2001.

During the Dodgers’ 13-1 win over the visiting Montreal Expos, Shawn Green hit three homers and drove in seven runs. After his second homer, he handed one of his batting gloves to 14-year-old Lauren Cane of Chatsworth, sitting in the dugout seats near the Dodgers’ on-deck circle with her sister Reagan.

Lauren’s emotions over receiving the gift were so priceless that Vin Scully began to do play-by-play on her expressions during the Fox Sports West 2 telecast.

Her parents watching the game at home must have been just as excited, right? Not really.

“We have Time Warner Cable,” Cane told a Dodgers employee at the game.

Stories like this come to mind when trying to connect the dots in time, starting with the current launching situation of Time Warner Cable SportsNet and Deportes to a Southern California population of Lakers fans as a focal point.

No new movement has taken place in the talks between TWC and the group that includes DirecTV, Dish, Charter, Cox, AT&T Uverse or Verizon FiOS, meaning tonight’s Lakers’ exhibition game in Las Vegas won’t be on those competing entities, and likely the same for the remaining exhibitions leading up to the Oct. 30 season opener (which is on TNT against Dallas).

That story more than 11 years ago was framed around what had become the latest Time Warner Cable carriage dispute, here with the two local Fox Sports West channels — now rebranded as Fox Sports Net and Prime Ticket. TWC was one of several companies that balked at a surcharge forced onto them, so it stopped showing Dodgers games starting in July and through the end of the season. The Angels, too, were eventually cut off to TWC subscribers for the second half of the season on FSW.

FSW2 actually launched four years earlier, in 1997, if we’re attempting to draw a better comparison to this TWC SportsNet/Deportes scenario.

That business decision seemed logical, but drew plenty of pushback from cable operators who didn’t want to incur extra fees just because Fox Sports West had gobbled up the local TV rights to the Lakers, Clippers, Dodgers, Angels, Kings and Ducks and needed more channel room for all the overlap.

DirecTV was a small-time player back then, in the infancy of its existence, but gaining momentum as an alternative for those tired of watching cable company dominance. Players like Time Warner had far more real estate protected, but it was being challenged.

The local sports TV landscape might be a bit different in the last decade or so, but a lot of the moving parts to the art of the negotiation really haven’t changed, which allows for some educated guessing by experienced negotiators on how this latest mele may play out.

“It’s all relative, because things have grown so huge with what’s financially at stake, but in a lot of ways I don’t think it’s that much different,” Kitty Cohen, the former vice president and general manager of FSW and FWS2 at the time of the second channel’s launch, said this week.

Still a consultant in the sports TV business, Cohen has watched this TWC-Lakers situation play out with a vested interest – she’s a DirecTV subscriber in Manhattan Beach.

“My brother, a huge Laker fan, is calling me all the time ranting about it, too,” she said with a laugh.

Dj vu all over again, watching this high-priced game of local TV chicken played out, with the fans feeling as if they’ve been plucked, battered and deep fried in the end.

Cohen, whose years at Fox Sports West-original Prime Ticket from 1988 to 1999 started as a chief financial officer, was trying to get cable operators then to kick in another 75 cents per subscriber per month for the second channel – or 60 cents if they committed to five years.

These days, TWC SportsNet and Deportes are priced at $3.95, a package deal. So far, there are no takers as the Lakers’ first regular-season game telecast exclusive to the channels comes up in 13 days, on Halloween.

“Back then, that seemed like big money,” Cohen said. “From the distributors’ side, you were still trying to keep costs low for consumers. But sports continue to be an expensive process. Any time a deal is re-done, the growth can seem astronomical.

“I remember, it was hard to get everyone on board. It was a tough battle. We were splitting programming and asking for more fees, and I’m sure Time Warner is having that same kind of feeling now.

“Back then, no Dodger fan wanted to be shut out of their games. The same now for the Lakers.”

USC and UCLA also came into play back in the ’97 launch. Their first head-to-head basketball came in January was a Fox Sports West 2 event that many didn’t see. The Ducks also weren’t happy with being relegated to the new channel, either, feeling their fans in Orange County would be slighted. The NHL team filed an court injunction to keep their games on Fox Sports West, but were denied.

FSW at the time had a reach of about 4.5 million customers; FSW2 was getting to about 400,000 at its launch.

For the Dodgers, this was their first basic-cable package deal and called for only 40 games on FSW2, so it wasn’t like the Lakers’ full-season package with SportsNet/Deportes (actually, 72 of the 82-game regular season, due to national exclusive broadcasts), plus all the ancillary programming.

It took two months into the Dodgers season for a few more companies to take FSW2, lifting that to 1.1 million subscribers. It wasn’t until almost a full year before Time Warner, second in coverage to then-Continental Cablevision at the time, came to an agreement for December 1, ’97 – but even then, Century and Comcast customers were still blacked out.

The 2001 dispute that followed came after FSW2 doubled the Dodgers’ schedule from 40 to 80, and then asked cable and dish services to help cover the costs. TWC was one of several to hold out again to a fee that would bring the price to about $2.50 a customer per month. That took several more months to sort out.

The element that Cohen sees could be more of a challenge now for TWC is that there are two current regional sports networks in Southern California to compete against when asking for carriage – the same FSN and Prime, with a strong beachhead despite the Lakers’ divorce.

For comparison’s sake, FSN and Prime (with year-around local live game programming) cost subscribers about $5 a month these days according to SNL Kagan research – but that’s without the Lakers (or MLS Galaxy, or WNBA Sparks, who also joined TWC).
And that equation could change soon as well.

The clock is ticking again for Fox. Their 45-day window of exclusive renegotiating a new deal with the Dodgers past 2013 began last Monday, and ends Nov. 30. With the ability to watch how these TWC SportsNet/Deportes carriage deals sort themselves out, the Dodgers could wait for the bidding to really escalate if Time Warner Cable is allowed to deliver its multi-billion dollar pitch.

A probable factor to that agenda getting done is Magic Johnson, the former Lakers great and current Dodgers co-owner who also recently launched his own Atlanta-based TV network, ASPiRE.

“Nothing takes place over night,” Cohen says of regional sports network deals then and now, if you’re looking for some context on how long this SportsNet/Deportes distribution can go.

“In the end, sports will always be a huge driver for subscribers, still the most popular entity on local TV, with fans who tend to be the most vocal.

“It seems to me that things do get done pretty quickly once people start falling in. Maybe you get one or two hold outs, but it’s not that long once each side compromises.

“I’m a subscriber like everyone else waiting anxiously to see this get done, but I can’t see it going past a game or two (on the Lakers’ regular-season schedule). There are too many strong Laker fans who won’t allow that, they’ll turn and put pressure on the team, and the Lakers, who don’t want to see their fans hurt, might have to step in because it’s also in their best interest to get it done.”

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