November 4, 2016 11:09 AMAntitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice ("DoJ") sued AT&T arguing that its DirecTV subsidiary was the "ringleader of information sharing agreements" among rivals that "corrupted" competition among rivals to carry the Dodgers' cable TV channel. Complaint at para 2. According to the DoJ, this is the primary reason that Dodgers' fans in L.A.--living outside of Time Warner Cable's ("TWC") service area have not been able to watch Dodgers' games since the 2013 season.
Unfortunately, the DoJ seems dangerously unaware of findings by a federal court--in an antitrust case on the exact same subject matter being litigated during the same time frame as the facts in the DoJ complaint--that the exclusive sports distribution contracts (that raise consumer rates) may well be the more obvious Sherman Act violation. When we know what DirecTV knew--as a defendant to that litigation--we can better understand why the DoJ could not be more wrong in this case.
L.A. Regional Sports Networks ("RSNs")
Until 2011, Fox Sports was the leading RSN in the L.A. area. It had two channels, one of which distributed games of the Lakers, Kings, and the Anaheim Angels, and the other of which distributed the games of the Clippers, Dodgers, and Anaheim Ducks.
But, as Fox's contract with the Lakers was ending in 2011, TWC swooped in and paid $3 billion for the rights to broadcast the Lakers' non-national games for the next 20 years. As DoJ recounts in its complaint, TWC raised the prices to carry the Lakers (as a standalone channel) well above any range of what any of the other pay TV distributors considered fair value. DoJ Complaint paras. 29-39.
In 2013, Guggenheim Partners paid an unheard of $2.15 billion for the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team ("Dodgers"). The private equity investors then turned around and sold the exclusive rights to distribute Dodgers' games--in the form of a dedicated "Dodgers channel"--to TWC for an even-more-unheard-of price of $8.3 billion.
Reportedly, TWC never budged on its demands, that every pay TV distributor (i.e., competitors and other cable/satellite companies), would have to pay it--on a per-subscriber basis for the rights to broadcast Dodgers games--regardless of how many of these distributor's customers want to watch the games. Until Wednesday, the narrative was that TWC's "unmitigated disaster" of a deal showed that perhaps there was some limit to the ever skyrocketing costs of sports programming.
DoJ to TWC's Rescue
The DoJ contends that DirecTV privately told other pay TV companies that it was not going to pay TWCs outrageous demands. The DoJ argues that, but for this exchange of information, TWC's competitors, and other pay TV distributors in the L.A. Dodgers home market, would have been happy to pay (and pass along to their consumers) the supra-monopoly prices being demanded by TWC.
Bizarrely, DoJ contrasts the "anticompetitive" situation of today with an earlier--presumably "competitive"--negotiation period, in which TWC (as the new RSN for the Lakers) extorts a price from Cox Communications' subscribers of "60% more" than Cox's internal analysis indicated the content was worth. Complaint at para. 36. No, the DoJ's thinking is that if cable companies aren't just spending their customers' money and passing through rate increases, then something illegal is afoot.
The fact, though, is that the vertical distribution contracts--which are responsible for the sports programming price increases (that DoJ is incomprehensibly fighting for)--were under antitrust scrutiny, and coming up short, throughout the relevant time period covered by the DoJ suit. After looking at these contracts in the light of antitrust precedent, we can truly appreciate just how wrong the DoJ was to go after the victim--and not the cause--of spiraling sports programming costs.
Consumers Fight Anticompetitive RSN Contracts
In 2012, consumers filed class action antitrust lawsuits against the MLB and the NHL in the Southern District of New York. See, e.g., Laumann v. NHL, et al. and Garber v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball, et al., 907 F. Supp.2d. 462 (SDNY 2012). These cases squarely attacked the contracts at the heart of the exclusive "home television territory" ("HTT") distribution model. Specifically, consumers alleged that the contracts between the teams, MLB (and the NHL), and the RSNs of DirecTV and Comcast, illegally restricted competition in the broadcasting/streaming markets because these agreements also restrict the right of the "away" team--a non-party to these contracts--to sell its own broadcast feed to anyone in the HTT area of another RSN.
MLB fans can only watch games of their "home team" by purchasing a cable package from the RSN (or a distributor of the RSN, such as AT&T, Verizon FiOS, or a satellite or cable company). Fans of other teams could only watch the games of out-of-market teams by purchasing an out-of-market package ("OMP") from the leagues (for streaming customers) or from the RSN (distributing on behalf of the leagues).
The plaintiffs' successfully argued (at every pre-trial stage) that the complicated web of contracts between the teams, the leagues, and DirecTV and Comcast (which prevented a non-party to the contract (i.e., any "away team") from selling its own independently-produced feed of the game to any fan in any part of the country) were "contracts . . . in restraint of trade" in violation of the Sherman Act. The plaintiffs' contention was that, but for these contracts, fans could purchase the away-team feeds of games on an "a la carte" basis, even if they did not want to buy home team's cable package.
The Case History/Court Findings
Throughout the case, DirecTV and Comcast (in the same role as TWC in the DoJ case), vigorously argued at every possible stage that, as the RSNs, they were merely accepting terms set forth by the Leagues and that they did not benefit from the exclusivity--and the higher-than-competitive consumer prices--that this exclusivity produced. The court rejected this argument in both the defendant's motions to dismiss in 2012 (opinion) and their motions for summary judgment in 2014 (opinion).
The court explained that,
evidence that the Television Defendants would not have entered the contracts at the prices prescribed but for the territorial restrictions, is sufficient evidence from which a fact finder could infer a tacit horizontal agreement among the RSNs and MVPDs.See, Opinion Denying Defendant's Motions for Summary Judgment, at 50 (emphasis added). Further, in rejecting the defendant's motions for summary judgment, the court found,
The clubs in each League have entered an express agreement to limit competition between the clubs - and their broadcaster affiliates - based on geographic territories. There is also evidence of a negative impact on the output, price, and perhaps even quality of sports programming.See, Id. at 30/57.
In May of 2015, the court certified the plaintiff's class to go forward to trial in order to seek injunctive relief, but not money damages, because there was no common monetary impact among the class members. This decision pretty much guaranteed that the case would settle, which it did, on the eve of trial, earlier this year. The settlement agreement, unfortunately, leaves intact the geographic market exclusivity, which, in turn, ensures that sports content costs will continue to spiral.
To What End?
In many ways, this is/was the perfect case for an antitrust enforcement agency to bring--meritorious, but without the profit potential to ensure the efficacy of private enforcement. However, there is no evidence the DoJ was even aware of this antitrust litigation.
So, instead of taking up the consumer's side, the DoJ chose to sue on behalf of conduct that a United States District Court has already characterized as "express agreement[s] to limit competition between the clubs - and their broadcaster affiliates - based on geographic territories" and their corresponding "evidence of a negative impact on the output, price, and perhaps even quality of sports programming." It is sad that the DoJ didn't follow antitrust developments in this field closely enough to know that agreements which result in distributors paying 60% premiums over value is the result of a "corruption of competition"--rather than competition itself.
Finally, it is interesting to consider that, until several months ago, DirecTV had every reason to believe that a court would be likely to find that its RSN contracts were an illegal restraint of trade. How ironic that, having dodged a bullet with respect to its RSN agreements, DirecTV would find itself the target of another lawsuit for not agreeing to pay the most anti-consumer RSN contract in America!