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The kickoff to the NFL season is Thursday night, and Charter Communications doesn’t appear to be moving down the field in its negotiations with Disney.
Last week, Charter and Disney’s talks over contract fees spilled into the public when they were not able to reach an agreement and millions of consumers across the U.S. saw Disney-owned networks like ESPN and FX go dark.
On Thursday, Charter CEO Chris Winfrey said that “Disney will be who decides” what happens in the dispute.
“Sitting here today, if I had anything material to highlight I would, so that should tell you something on how we’re doing,” Winfrey said at the Goldman Sachs’ Communacopia and Technology conference, regarding the state of the negotiations as the beginning of the NFL season nears. He added both companies feel a sense of urgency to resolve this quickly.
Disney’s latest statement also indicated that the stalemate persists.
“It’s unfortunate that Charter decided to abandon their consumers by denying them access to our great programming,” Disney said Thursday. “The question for Charter is clear: Do you care about your subscribers and what they’re telling you they want — or not? Disney stands ready to resolve this dispute and do what’s in the best interest of Charter’s customers.”
Winfrey on Thursday said both Charter and Disney’s customers were caught in the crosshairs of this fight.
Disney added that Charter, one of the biggest pay TV providers in the U.S., has rejected multiple offers to extend negotiations before the blackout on Aug. 31.
Adding to the pressure is the kickoff of the NFL season — with ESPN’s first “Monday Night Football” game of the season occurring in a few days — as well as the U.S. Open and the beginning of college football season.
“Disney is the linchpin. ESPN is the linchpin,” Winfrey said Thursday of the cable bundle. “They have the opportunity to lead here and drive the industry. And if it works, it’s going to be because of them.”
Disney executives have said it’s a matter when, not if, ESPN is available as a direct-to-consumer streaming service outside of the bundle. Currently, ESPN+ offers its own exclusive content and games, with some overlaps from the TV network, such as some “Monday Night Football” broadcasts.
SportsCenter at ESPN Headquarters.
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To bundle or not bundle sports?
Carriage fights and blackouts are not uncommon in the industry. But Charter’s proclamation about the pay TV model and push for programmers like Disney to make their streaming services available to cable customers at no additional cost has sent shock waves through an industry grappling with cord-cutting as streaming remains an unprofitable business.
A similar dispute has ensnared satellite-TV provider DirecTV and broadcast station owner Nexstar Media Group this summer. With many NFL games being offered, it could leave millions more consumers without access to the first games of the season.
But in a rare move, Winfrey and Charter executives held an investor call the day after Disney channels went dark for its customers. Executives said they pushed for a revamped deal with Disney that would see Charter’s Spectrum cable customers receive access to Disney’s ad-supported streaming services Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu at no additional cost.
This seems to be the sticking point in negotiations. Charter said it was willing to pay the increase requested by Disney.
Winfrey said Thursday a big issue with content companies like Disney has been that they are focused on streaming “as if it’s a completely separate business” when much of companies’ cash flow stems from the traditional pay TV bundle.
Last week, Winfrey put the media industry on notice when he said the pay TV model is broken and needs to change in order to survive.
Disney has shot back, saying Charter refused to enter into a deal after it offered favorable terms, without elaborating on specifics. The company also added that its traditional TV networks and streaming services aren’t the same and therefore shouldn’t be offered for free to cable TV customers.
Live sports have continued to garner the highest ratings and are considered to be the glue holding the pay TV bundle together.
“If you had an environment where we no longer carry Disney content, which is becoming more and more of a potential reality, you have to say … what other additional sports content would you renew? At that point, there is very little,” Winfrey said Thursday.
With less sports content, he said, there would be a smaller base of cable customers but also a smaller package of mostly general entertainment content at a cheaper price. Charter could then sell separate streaming subscriptions to customers who still want sports content.
Charter already made a step in this direction earlier this summer when the company announced it would offer a cheaper, sports-lite bundle without regional sports networks.
Sports often drive up the cost of pay TV and streaming subscriptions due to the rights fees media companies pay the leagues and teams to carry games on-air. This has been a key theme in this year’s bankruptcy filing of Diamond Sports Group, the largest owner of regional sports networks.
Meanwhile, Disney has pushed for Charter’s customers to sign up for alternative internet-TV bundles like its own Hulu +Live TV, as well as competitors like Fubo or YouTube TV.
“Disney deeply values its relationship with its viewers and is hopeful Charter is ready to have more conversations that will restore access to its content to Spectrum customers as quickly as possible,” Disney said in a statement over the weekend. “However, if you are one of these frustrated customers, it can be infuriating to not be able to access the content you want.”
Since the dispute began last Thursday, Hulu + Live TV sign-ups are more than 60% higher than expected, a Disney Entertainment spokesperson said.
As more of Charter’s customers leave the bundle for alternative options, Winfrey said the incentive to get a deal done only lessens as the remaining customers likely won’t care to watch sports.