Maybe it was the widespread feeling that Tom Wheeler is too close to the industry he regulates. Maybe it was pressure from Congress. Maybe it was John Oliver calling him a dingo. Whatever the reason, Wheeler is now telling Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus personally that "your actions appear to have created the inability of consumers in the Los Angeles area to watch televised games of the Los Angeles Dodgers."
In a business where finger-pointing is considered the sport of kings, that's a pretty harsh blow from an industry regulator—it's not often that an external agency directly apportions blame, but wrangling over costs or no, Wheeler is making an example of TWC in its dispute with the SportsNet LA, the network owned by the Dodgers (disclosure: Guggenheim Partners, Adweek's parent company, acquired the Dodgers in 2012). Wheeler has demanded that Marcus supply the FCC all material pertaining to the SportsNetLA contract.
Wheeler made it clear that he has a handle on the situation, too: "I understand that TWC's contract with SportsNet LA provides TWC with exclusive rights to the affiliate sales for SportsNet LA," Wheeler wrote in a letter to Marcus. "I further understand from press reports that, in its carriage negotiations with other [multichannel video programming distributors], TWC has demanded that SportsNet LA be carried on the basic service tier at rates of $4-$5 per subscriber. Other MVPDs in the network's footprint reportedly have refused to agree to these terms, claiming that the price is too high and objecting to terms that could require all subscribers to pay for access to the network."
That stalemate has indeed shut 70 percent of the L.A. market out of games for their local baseball franchise, but Wheeler seems pretty intent on making an example of TWC: "As you know, soaring bills for cable and other MVPD services have become a cause of consumer dismay," he wrote. Wheeler acknowledges pressure from "eight members of Congress from the Los Angeles area" who asked him to intervene.
The letter is fortuitously timed. The blackout is expected to end very soon, possibly as early as this evening according to L.A. ABC affiliate KABC; if it does, Wheeler gets the appearance of strength without actually having to do anything except draft a letter expressing his disappointment on behalf of Dodgers fans.
For TWC, though, the letter could not have come at a worse time. Time Warner's acquisition by Comcast has stalled amid the busy schedule of the FCC, and many in the industry have speculated that additional attention to the deal will hurt its chances of proceeding at all. The deal would be a huge one, too, granting Comcast control of nearly 1/3 of the domestic cable market.