Disney/ESPN dispute with Spectrum latest example of how our 'video ecosystem is broken'
Bally Sports' bankruptcy, shrinking local TV ratings, and a "staggering" fall in cable TV subscriptions will result in huge changes in the TV industry.
We're watching the collapse of the old TV infrastructure before our very eyes.
The current dispute between Disney and Spectrum cable — which resulted in Disney pulling the ESPN networks, Disney Channel, Freeform and Nat Geo from Spectrum and Charter systems nationwide last Thursday — is another huge wave in the TV industry tsunami coming to your big screen, phone, tablet or computer.
The picture is bleak. The growing popularity of streaming has brought a stream of bad news this year:
HISTORIC LOW FOR TV: For the first time, TV viewing by antenna and cable fell below 50% in July, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Streaming hit an all-time high in July with 38.7% of all TV usage, according to Nielsen's monthly report cited by the trade publication. Broadcast TV fell to 20% of all viewing in July, while cable TV accounted for 29.6%, for a total of 49.6%. Two years ago, when Nielsen began tracking use by platform, broadcast and cable combined for 63.3% of all U.S. television viewing.
"Over the last five years alone, the linear video industry … has lost nearly 25 million customers, almost 25 percent of total industry customers. It is staggering," said a statement by Spectrum cable parent Charter Communications after Disney pulled its channels Aug. 31. Charter is the second-largest cable TV company in the U.S. with about 14.7 million subscribers.
Meanwhile, streaming jumped by 48%, up from 26% in 2021, Nielsen said. The leading service was YouTube (not including its YouTube TV) at 9.2% of the total TV usage. Next came Netflix (8.5%), Hulu (3.6%) Amazon Prime Video (3.4%), Disney+ (2%), Max (1.4%), Tubi (1.4%), Peacock and the Roku Channel (1.1%) and Paramount+ (1%).
LOCAL TV DECLINES: As I reported in June when WKRC-TV General Manager Jon Lawhead retired, the number of Greater Cincinnati homes using televisionhas plummeted over the past five years,according to Nielsen overnight meters.
My comparison of May sweeps ratings from 2018 to this year showed that the combined 11 p.m. local news audience dropped 45%. Other newscasts experienced about the same: The 6-7 a.m. local news audience fell 42%, and the 6 p.m. local news audience dropped 36%.
One longtime Cincinnati TV veteran tells me that if viewership continues to drop dramatically, "in the next five years we may have only two TV newsrooms left in the market. Unless these companies want to run news as a nonprofit, the viewership just isn't going to support what we currently have."
Don't be surprised if a station pulls the plug on its low-rated noon newscast in the next few years.
BALLY SPORTS BANKRUPTCY: The first big victim of cable TV cord-cutting was Diamond Sports Group LLC, the subsidiary of Sinclair Broadcast Group which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection March 14. Diamond's Bally Sports regional networks — which hold TV rights to 14 MLB teams, including the Reds — sought a 30-day grace period from creditors on Feb. 15 after failing to make a $140 million interest payment.
Since then, Diamond's Bally Sports regional networks have failed to pay rights fees to the San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks, with Major League Baseball taking over producing those games. The same thing nearly happened to the Reds in May, but Diamond made a payment on May 2, "complying with our contractual agreement," said Karen Forgus, Reds senior vice president of business operations.
Sinclair — which also owns WKRC-TV and Dayton's WKEF-TV (Channel 22) and WRGT-TV (Channel 45) — bought the old Fox Sports Ohio and 20 other regional sports networksfrom Disney in August 2019 for $9.6 billion.
Diamond pays about $1.8 billion in annual rights fees to the 14 MLB clubs; 16 National Basketball Association teams, including the Cleveland Cavaliers; and 12 National Hockey League teams, including the Columbus Blue Jackets, according to Forbes.
Since buying the Fox Sports regionals four years ago, the TV industry has been turned upside down. The old model of cable customers paying high prices for a bundle of channels — many they might not watch — has collapsed as people shift to steaming.
Diamond also jumped into the streaming business a year ago — but while the Bally Sports Ohio+ service carries the Blue Jackets and Cavaliers, it doesn't have the Reds. In fact, Diamond only had streaming rights for five of its 14 cable TV baseball teams (Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Miami Marlins, Milwaukee Brewers and Tampa Bay Rays). And Bally Sports doesn't have a streaming deal with Major League Baseball for this season.
All indications are that MLB wants to control streaming rights and revenues, and not give them to Diamond or other cable TV networks.
DISNEY-SPECTRUM DISPUTE: Which brings us to the current disconnect between Disney and Charter/Spectrum.
At the heart of the dispute is the cable company's desire to get a piece of streaming action in its next carriage agreement with Disney. It's such a serious issue that both sides decided to play hardball before the college football season kicked off last weekend.
Charter released a statement saying that "the current video ecosystem is broken, and we know there is a better path that will deliver video products with the choice consumers want."
The company admitted that "for the last decade, linear video subscription services have been in decline, fueled by the migration of valuable programming to direct-to-consumer options coupled with a vicious cycle of programming cost increases and subscriber losses."
And it doesn't sound like ESPN and Disney channels will be restored any time soon.
"We believe that renewing a traditional distribution deal in line with The Walt Disney Company’s current offer would ignore the realities of today’s video business and accelerate its decline. We do not take this decision lightly. For 2023, we had expected to pay the Walt Disney Company more than $2.2 billion for just the right to carry that content, not including the impact of advertising on either party. But we have reached a precipice and must chart a path to change," the company said.
Charter said it was "disappointed" that Disney has "insisted on unsustainable price hikes and forcing customers to take their products, even when they don’t want or can't afford them."
The cable giant wanted to include Disney's direct-to-consumer streaming apps for Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ as part of its cable 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," according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Charter said its offer would "transform the industry and help restore our mutual video business to growth." For now, the cable company is offering subscribers who call in to customer service a $15 rebate, and telling some customers to consider Fubo, the sports-centric app.
Hollywood Reporter writer Alex Weprin says an eventual Disney-Charter settlement could "dramatically reshape both the pay TV and streaming" businesses.
"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," Weprin said.
Analysts Michael Nathanson and Craig Moffett told Weprin that "the collateral damage could be wide-ranging" for future negotiations with sports leagues or local TV stations. "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."
Striking Hollywood writers and actors have halted TV and film production because they want a better deal for streaming programs. Bally Sports have given up TV rights for the Padres and Diamondbacks.
ESPN, Freeform and other Disney channels are gone from Spectrum.