Over Labor Day weekend — as families gathered for holiday barbecues and as ESPN was televising major sporting events like college football games and U.S. Open tennis — executives from ESPN’s parent company The Walt Disney Co. and the cable giant Charter Communications continued to have discussions about the ongoing carriage dispute that is keeping Disney’s channels off of Spectrum, Charter’s cable TV service.
So what’s the background again?
On Thursday, Aug. 31, Disney’s channels were pulled from the Spectrum TV service, which is owned by Charter Communications, the second-largest cable TV company in the U.S., with about 14.7 million subscribers.
The channels were pulled because Disney and Charter were unable to come to terms on a new carriage agreement, and the sides were far enough apart that an extension of the negotiating time likely would not have been enough to close a deal, forcing the current impasse. A source close to the talks tells The Hollywood Reporter that there was a “big gulf” between them, as of Sunday afternoon.
What channels are blacked out, and where?
Disney’s cable channels — most notably the ESPN networks — as well as FX, Disney Channel, Nat Geo and Freeform, are impacted across Spectrum’s footprint. Also impacted is the ABC broadcast networks in regions where Charter is the cable provider, and where Disney owns the station. That includes New York City, Los Angeles, and Durham-Raleigh, North Carolina, three cities where Disney owns the local station (WABC, KABC, and WTVD respectively).
What are the sticking points in the negotiations?
In most carriage negotiations, the two big issues are the price (how much the carrier will pay per channel), and the distribution (what percentage of its footprint will be required to have the channel in their package).
In this case, a source close to Disney says that the main sticking point is what role Disney’s streaming services should play. They say that Charter wants to have Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ in the bundle without any extra payment. Disney is said to have offered a menu of options, which could include Charter selling the Disney services to its customers, or bundling it with other offerings.
Charter, meanwhile, told Wall Street analysts that programmers like Disney built their streaming services off of the cash generated by their linear channels, and shifted programming investments from linear to streaming.
So the big holdup is streaming. Will it remain an a la carte offering as it stands today, or will Charter tie it to its linear offerings in some capacity? There are also some concerns around distribution, and how widely available Disney’s channels will need to be.
Are there other options to get ESPN or ABC content?
Yes. Some markets have alternative cable providers, and satellite TV service like DirecTV or Dish is also an option. Increasingly consumers are opting to choose “virtual MVPDs,” which offer pay-TV service over the internet. The most popular vMVPDs are YouTube TV and Hulu with Live TV (which happens to be owned by Disney).
In fact, both Disney and Charter are pushing consumers to vMVPDs. In an unprecedented move, Charter is telling some customers to consider Fubo, the sports-centric vMVPD, and is offering a discounted rate for three months (yes, the cable company is giving its customers an offer to cancel their TV service).
Disney, late Monday evening, launched a new consumer-focused campaign directing consumers to other options, including Hulu with Live TV, which it also owns.
Is Charter Spectrum giving customers rebates?
Yes, Charter Spectrum is offering customers who call in to customer service a $15 rebate. If the dispute drags on, it is possible that offer expands.
Are carriage deals always this contentious?
No. Most carriage negotiations happen quietly and are completed without fanfare. Occasionally the dispute bursts into the press as a deadline approaches, and very rarely channels are pulled from the TV services.
Disney has found itself in a handful of carriage disputes over the past two years. Last October, Disney’s channels, including ESPN and ABC, went dark on the satellite TV service Dish Network and its Sling TV streaming offering in a similar dispute. The channels were offline for a couple of days before the companies reached a deal.
And in late 2021, Disney’s channels went dark on YouTube TV, but also returned after a deal was reached in a couple of days.
In an extremely unusual move, Charter executives held an analyst call after the blackout began, telling Wall Street that it had reached the “point of indifference” as to whether it stays in the video business, or abandons it. “We’re on the edge of a precipice. We’re either moving forward with a new collaborative video model, or we’re moving on,” Charter CEO Chris Winfrey said.
So Charter says it might exit from the pay-TV business. Is that a thing? Have other cable operators stopped offering TV?
Yes. Earlier this year the cable provider WOW!, which operates in parts of the midwest and south and has a little over 500,000 subscribers, stopped offering TV service and shifted its TV subs to YouTube TV. And last year Frontier Communications, which operates in a handful of markets across the country and also had about 500,000 TV subscribers, stopped offering its TV service and pushed its TV subs to YouTube TV.
Altice, which has about 2.4 million pay-TV subscribers, including in the lucrative and populous New York City suburbs, has publicly weighed exploring options for its TV business, though it has not settled on a formal plan.
Will this deal have repercussions for the broader entertainment and media landscape?
Yes, many TV providers have a “most favored nation” clause, which allows them to to take advantage if a competitors cuts a better deal.
But perhaps more importantly, this deal has the potential to dramatically reshape both the pay-TV and streaming ecosystem. If streaming is more closely integrated into the bundle, Charter has said it will push for similar moves by other companies that operate both streaming services and pay-TV channels. If Charter exits the TV business altogether, it will likely cause millions of homes to abandon the pay-TV bundle, and potentially speed up its decline as other, smaller TV providers follow suit.
The result will likely be far less spending on content from media and entertainment companies, including on sports and original programming.
“The collateral damage could be wide-ranging from sports leagues with rights coming up from renewal, local TV station affiliates seeking material step-ups and creative talent tied to the programming investments made by linear networks,” MoffettNathanson analysts Michael Nathanson and Craig Moffett in an analyst report Friday.
“The stark reality is the media and distribution landscape has been building up to this moment for many years. Each media company owns some of the blame,” they add, while Wells Fargo analyst Steven Cahall calls the dispute a “reckoning” for the media business.