News Analysis
The announcement yesterday that DIRECTV and other AT&T-owned TV services would carry SportsNet LA was so surprising that some thought it was an April Fool’s joke. The two sides had been such bitter foes that it didn’t seem possible that they would ever come to terms. But yesterday, more than six years after the channel’s launch, it suddenly appear just like that on DIRECTV’s channel 690.

Of course, since Major League Baseball has suspended play due to the Coronavirus outbreak, there’s not much to watch now. But when (if?) the 2020 season begins, DIRECTV subscribers in the LA market will be able to watch live Los Angeles Dodgers games at home for the first time since 2014. (Until yesterday, Charter, which has the management rights to SportsNet LA, has been the only major pay TV distributor to carry it in the region.)

Charter and AT&T, which negotiates DIRECTV’s programming agreements, were mum on why the two sides were able to reach a settlement after all these years. Stan Kasten, the Dodgers’ brash-talking CEO, also danced around the subject when interviewed by the channel itself.

The uncertainty when the season will start was likely a factor. Charter’s leverage is significantly reduced now so perhaps it agreed to lower its fees, at least for the 2020 season.

AT&T’s desperation to reduce DIRECTV’s subscriber defections may have also played a role. (The satcaster has lost a net of four million customers since AT&T purchased it in 2015.)

But I suspect that the unique circumstances of this time in baseball history, our history, is the driving motivation behind the agreement. And it could be why LA baseball fans who subscribe to DIRECTV shouldn’t celebrate too much over the news.

In yesterday’s announcement, the companies did not reveal the agreement’s terms, including its length. Often (if not almost always) when a programmer and provider sign a new carriage pact, they will say in the press release that it’s a “multi-year” agreement. That is, if it is for multiple years.

But Charter and AT&T are just simply saying they have a deal, which tells me it could be for a single year.

And that would make sense. Again, due to Charter’s weakened position, it could have asked for reduced fees for the 2020 season, which would give AT&T two powerful reasons to agree.

1. AT&T wouldn’t have to pay as much for the rights;
2. AT&T would get a publicity boost by announcing the deal.

Dodgers fans wouldn’t know the deal was only for one year so they might be more inclined to stay with DIRECTV after hearing news of the agreement. That could significantly help DIRECTV’s efforts to keep and attract subscribers in the Los Angeles market in 2020, a time when the satcaster is more vulnerable to a business collapse than at any time in its 26-year history.

You might argue that AT&T would risk alienating subscribers if it dropped SportsNet LA in 2021 when Charter increased its fees again. But these are desperate times for AT&T’s TV division; it needs to do whatever is necessary now and worry about the future later.

I keep thinking that it simply doesn’t make sense that after six years, AT&T and DIRECTV suddenly saw value in SportsNet LA that they didn’t see before. It only makes sense if Charter lowered the price, and it only makes sense for Charter to lower its price for 2020.

So, Dodgers fans, rejoice in yesterday’s news. But don’t be shocked if the celebration is short-lived.

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— Phillip Swann