Tampa Bay area sports fans with Spectrum cable and streaming services who wanted to watch Thursday night’s Florida football season opener against Utah on ESPN couldn’t see the game because the ESPN networks were pulled off Spectrum in a carriage fee dispute between Spectrum’s parent company, Charter Communications, and Disney Entertainment.
Spectrum customers lost not only all of Disney’s sports channels (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPNU, ESPN News, SEC Network, ACC Network, Longhorn Network) but also FX, FX Movie Channel, FXX, Freeform, National Geographic, Nat Geo Wild, Nat Geo Mundo, Disney Channel, Disney Junior, Disney XD and BabyTV.
Here’s what you need to know about the dispute as of Friday.
Why is this happening now?
Disputes over carriage fees — the fees that cable and streaming companies pay network owners to broadcast the networks — are common now as cable companies, streaming providers and direct-to-consumer services compete for subscribers. But a dispute pitting a megamedia company with a package of nearly 20 networks against the nation’s second-largest cable provider is a battle of heavyweights. The sides had been negotiating, but Disney pulling its networks off Spectrum was sudden. The timing affects sports fans greatly. Not only did the networks get pulled as ESPN kicks off its opening week of college football coverage (games also were on the SEC Network, ACC Network and ESPNU), ESPN and ESPN2 are showing U.S. Open tennis. In addition, the move came with ESPN’s NFL “Monday Night Football” opener between the Bills and Jets on Sept. 11. Disney’s timing seemed strategic to have the most impact.
Who is to blame?
There’s enough blame to go around, especially considering the power brokers involved. Both sides created websites to share their stances. On Charter’s website, disneyespnfairdeal.com, the cable system said it made Disney “a fair deal, yet they are demanding an excessive increase” in carriage fees. Charter said Disney wants “to limit our ability to provide greater customer choice in programming packages, forcing you to take and pay for channels you may not want.” It also stated that “the rising cost of programming is the single greatest factor in higher cable TV prices.” On its website, keepmynetworks.com, Disney said it “has a highly successful track record of negotiating with providers of all types and sizes across the country and is committed to reaching fair, market-based rates and terms.” Disney’s site includes links for customers to switch to a provider that carries its networks. Alternative options locally include satellite services DirecTV and Dish Network, cable provider Xfinity, and streamers YouTube TV, Hulu, Fubo, Sling and Vidgo. Both sites urge customers to complain to the competing side.
Has this happened before?
Carriage fee disputes aren’t unusual, but they often get resolved before a cable provider’s programming is affected. There was a dispute between Charter and Disney four years ago. In late July 2019, Disney told Spectrum subscribers they were in danger of losing its networks if the sides couldn’t reach an agreement by Aug. 2. That deadline passed without a resolution, but no networks were removed and the companies continued to negotiate through a temporary agreement. Less than two weeks later, they came to a multiyear deal. That Disney pulled networks this time could indicate the sides are far apart.
What are the motivations?
Seeking a carriage fee increase is important for Disney because its direct-to-consumer product has struggled of late. Its Disney+ streaming service (which includes the Marvel and Star Wars catalog of movies and shows), ESPN+ streaming and exclusive content, and Hulu live streaming service are bountiful. But after peaking in the fourth quarter of last year, Disney+ subscriptions dropped for the third straight quarter this year for the first time since the service launched in November 2019. Spectrum, which is projected to pass Comcast as the nation’s largest TV cable provider this year, has been working on a massive reorganization of its subscription options to offer packages with live sports networks and others with general entertainment programming. An option without ESPN and its associated networks would be a major hurdle for Spectrum to overcome.
When will the dispute be resolved?
It’s difficult to predict. In October, Disney networks went dark on the Dish Network and Sling TV, but that lasted just a few days. In December 2021, Disney and Google failed to come to an agreement, and Disney networks went dark on the Google-owned YouTube TV streaming service. The stalemate lasted two days before the sides came to a resolution, and YouTube TV subscribers were given a $15 refund for their time without ESPN and the other Disney networks. Local sports fans with Hulu and YouTube TV have been unable to watch Lightning and Rays broadcasts that aren’t nationally televised since early 2021 due to longtime wrangling with the Bally Sports stable of regional networks (then the Fox Sports regional networks). One other matter coming up: Baseball’s wild-card series will be televised on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2. A continued absence of ESPN networks for Spectrum subscribers would leave those subscribers either without some games or switching to a provider that will be carrying them.
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Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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