Phils TV deal with Comcast still leaves some fans out

Satellite providers DirecTV and Dish still can't show most Philadelphia team games telecast over Comcast's SportsNet channel.
Satellite providers DirecTV and Dish still can't show most Philadelphia team games telecast over Comcast's SportsNet channel. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 27, 2014

As a Phillies fan, I never really expected my team to land Masahiro Tanaka, the latest Japanese phenom, or pull off a surprise blockbuster trade. If this isn't the year the old gang finally gets it all together - hey, Charlie Manuel is back! - then the most I can hope for is rebuilding, even with the promise of a new $2.5 billion TV pact with Comcast.

But there was one deal I was counting on, and the home team sorely disappointed me. The Phils could have insisted that Comcast finally play ball with Dish Network and DirecTV, the satellite services that still can't show viewers the vast majority of home-team games telecast over Comcast's SportsNet channel.

In fact, the situation will likely get worse. Comcast was formerly limited to showing 120 of the Phillies' 162 games on its regional sports network, with others available for broadcast on PHL17. Now that the Phils are a quarter-owner of SportsNet, the 25-year deal scraps that limit. SportsNet plans to carry 140 games; others will be shown on its sister Comcast Network. Just 12 games are expected on NBC10.

Who's hurt? SportsNet Philadelphia appears on Verizon FiOS, and on other regional cable systems. But anyone who can't get cable, or wants the competitive choice offered by the satellites, is out in the cold.

So are people outside the area, such as Kevin Kodish, a die-hard fan from 160 miles away in Mifflin County, where he serves as county commissioner. Kodish complains that fans of the Flyers and 76ers, who likewise appear on SportsNet, will also lose out while the Phillies cash in.

"This entire mess is unbelievable - the Phillies should be ashamed of themselves if they don't act on this issue," Kodish says. "I just can't believe that they want their fans shut out."

This is an old and complex tale, as Kodish noted while venting. Officially, Comcast can no longer deny SportsNet to the satellite services, as it did for nearly two decades under the "terrestrial loophole" in 1992's Cable Act. Now that the Federal Communications Commission has shut that loophole, Comcast's new partner just says the satellites aren't ready to pay the price.

"It goes without saying that the Phillies want all fans to have the opportunity to watch our games," said the Phillies' Bonnie Clark. "Comcast SportsNet has offered the channel to both DirecTV and Dish Network. In fact, Comcast SportsNet has offered to go to arbitration with both of the satellite services with the hope that they will sign on soon to give Phillies fans the opportunity to tune in regardless of their service provider."

There was one small piece of good news from Clark: that the handful of Phillies games on ESPN won't be blacked out this year. But the offer of arbitration is less generous than it seems.

When Comcast became a king of content as well as distribution by acquiring NBCUniversal, the FCC ordered program disputes to be settled via "baseball-style arbitration," an unusual process that makes an arbitrator pick one party's figure or the other's, no compromises allowed.

So what is SportsNet worth? Like Comcast, the satellites won't discuss details, but it's clear that arbitration could put them at risk. SNL Kagan estimated in 2012 that Comcast's Washington SportsNet earned $4.02 per subscriber. Some reports say Comcast wants as much as $5 apiece for the Philadelphia version - near the high price tag for ESPN that leaves many of its counterparts complaining loudly about the exploding cost of TV sports.

Nor is the satellite companies' upside clear, after Comcast gained a two-decade head start in luring the region's sports fans.

That long lead has been lucrative. By one 2010 estimate, the terrestrial loophole netted Comcast an extra 450,000 area subscribers - worth $800 million a year at monthly revenue per customer of about $150.

In the long run, the only answer to runaway costs is likely to be some form of a la carte pricing that enables fans to pay for the games they want without imposing costs on everyone else.

But in the short run, Comcast could learn from the Phillies, who know something about both losing and winning gracefully.

Comcast reigns as the corporate king of Philadelphia. How about a little noblesse oblige toward the satellites and their customers?


jgelles@phillynews.com

215-854-2776 @jeffgelles

www.inquirer.com/consumer

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