In 2013, Time Warner Cable (since acquired by Charter Communications) struck an $8.35 billion deal with the LA Dodgers to create LA SportsNet, the exclusive home of LA Dodgers games. To recoup its investment, Time Warner Cable demanded exorbitant prices from competing cable providers if they wanted access to the channel. Unsurprisingly, all of Time Warner Cable’s competitors in the region balked at the $5 per subscriber asking price.
Several years later, a massive portion of Los Angeles still can’t watch their favorite baseball team, since Time Warner Cable’s asking price not only kept competing cable operators from delivering the channel, but prohibited over-the-air broadcasts of the games.
Last November, a new wrinkle emerged in the standoff after the Department of Justice sued AT&T (now owner of DirecTV) for being a “ringleader” in a collusion effort involving the channel. The DOJ effectively claimed that DirecTV, Cox, and other regional cable providers violated antitrust law by sharing private company data during their coordinated effort against Time Warner Cable’s exclusive arrangement and higher rates. The original complaint stated that this “unlawful information exchange” violated consumers’ rights to fair channel price negotiations:
“As the complaint explains, Dodgers fans were denied a fair competitive process when DIRECTV orchestrated a series of information exchanges with direct competitors that ultimately made consumers less likely to be able to watch their hometown team,” said Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Sallet of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. “Competition, not collusion, best serves consumers and that is especially true when, as with pay-television providers, consumers have only a handful of choices in the marketplace.”
Fast forward a few months and a new administration, however, and the Department of Justice has announced that it has settled its lawsuit against AT&T. According to the DOJ, AT&T has agreed to monitor its employees so they do not illegally share information about sensitive contract negotiations with competitors. This, the DOJ states, should wind up being a boon for consumers:
“When competitors email, text, or otherwise share confidential and strategically sensitive information with each other to avoid competing, consumers lose,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Brent Snyder of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. “Today’s settlement promotes competition among pay-television providers and prevents AT&T and DIRECTV from engaging in illegal conduct that thwarts the competitive process.”
And yes, it makes sense to enforce existing antitrust law prohibiting covert collusion between companies. The problem, of course, is that nothing in the settlement fixes the original issue of Los Angeles residents being unable to actually watch these games due to Charter’s exclusive deal with the Dodgers. Nor does it address the fact that cable providers increasingly pad consumer bills with “regional sports fees” that pay for these networks (which they often already own), but are designed to help providers falsely advertise a lower rate at the point of sale (something regulators truly couldn’t care less about).
So while the settlement slaps the wrists of companies that technically broke the law to do battle with Charter’s exclusive arrangement, nothing about it really makes things arguably better for the consumer. And with the DOJ’s new incoming antitrust boss having formerly lobbied for both AT&T and Dish Network (he’s previously supported AT&T’s $85 billion plan to acquire Time Warner) the all-too-familiar anti-consumer dysfunction bone-grafted to the cable and broadcast sector isn’t likely to evaporate anytime soon, even with the added benefit of streaming competition.