Less than two weeks after settling its carriage dispute with Charter, Disney is in hot water with the cable TV companies again after its decision to simultaneously air “Monday Night Football” on ABC and ESPN.
The media giant said on Monday that it would add 10 additional MNF games to the network. While the decision was based on the Hollywood strike, which has resulted in a thin pipeline of scripted shows and films, it’s a win for cord cutters and audiences who weren’t subscribed to ESPN but still wanted to catch the game.
Less happy, however, are the various cable, satellite and telecom companies who pay large fees to carry ESPN, only to see its audience split between the cable channel and the ABC network. Executives of several distributors railed against Disney’s move in off-the-record conversations with the Sports Business Journal, saying it was “another instance where expensive programming is leaking outside of the bundle.”
Cord Cutters News separately confirmed that at least one distributor shared the sentiment. “Deals with programmers are based on unique content distributed across each individual network. When the same show, game or event is carried multiple places, especially at the same time, it undermines the experience and value for everyone,” said a person familiar with a pay TV provider’s thinking.
It’s been a rocky road for Disney as it simultaneously plays nice with the cable industry — which contributes to the lion’s share of revenue — and its own streaming services like Disney+, Hulu and its long-teased ESPN flagship service. That balance has spilled out into high-profile disputes as it did with Charter, which resulted in its channels going dark on the Spectrum cable TV lineup.
“Disney has declared war on cable and accelerating cord cutting,” said Ray Wang, N analyst at Constellation Research. “It doesn’t come as a surprise as they have been trying to salvage their streaming business and linear programming.”
A spokesman for Disney wasn’t immediately available to comment.
Disney’s move to make MNF a simulcast is only for one year, according to the SBJ. ABC needed additional content to fill the primetime hours, with the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes leaving productions shutdown since the writers hit the picket lines more than four months ago.
The NFL, meanwhile, likes the move because it potentially expands the reach and audience for its Monday games.
But the pay distributors have lost millions of pay TV customers over the last few years, and live sports was one of the key hooks keeping customers on their service. ESPN, in particular, is seen as the flagship network of cable, with some of the highest ratings — which keep getting higher — despite the rise of cord cutting. As a result, cable companies pay the highest fees for ESPN, while also paying for the retransmission fee for ABC.
“This whole double-dipping on the backs of distributors is just ridiculous,” one distribution executive told SBJ. “This is not going to endear the Walt Disney Co. to its distribution partners.”
An executive from one of the services did say that having the games on both ESPN and ABC isn’t as bad moving it to streaming, since both channels are still part of the cable bundle.
But the anger expressed by the cable industry likely taps into the broader concerns they’re already starting to lose their grip on sports as a differentiator. On Monday, Max launched its new sports bundle, which will offer live streaming versions of NBA, MLB, NHL and other sporting events that would air on Warner Bros. Discovery’s cable channels like TNT and TBS.
Google’s YouTube TV, meanwhile, took over NFL’s Sunday Ticket package from DirecTV, while Amazon streams “Thursday Night Football” and Apple TV offers the MLB Season Pass.
Disney, meanwhile, has made it clear it plans to offer a streaming equivalent to its flagship ESPN channel, with CEO Bob Iger saying it’s a matter of “when, not if.”
Which means Disney’s not done irking the cable industry.