Walt Disney and Charter resolve dispute over blacking out of TV programming

Walt Disney and Charter Communications have agreed to resolve a dispute over fees and terms, ending a 10-day stand-off that left millions of customers without premium live sports at the start of the autumn season.

As part of the deal, Disney will allow pay-television provider Charter to offer some of its ad-supported streaming offerings — including Disney+ and ESPN+ — to its customers as part of a “wholesale” arrangement.

The agreement restored full TV programming to about 14mn viewers after a stand-off viewed as a major test for Disney and the declining cable TV industry, which has been hurt by years of “cord-cutting”.

Charter’s chief executive, Chris Winfrey, declared the cable TV business had been “broken” by the rise of streaming and openly discussed to investors the possibility of abandoning the business to concentrate on its larger broadband market.

The deal came hours before the first Monday Night Football broadcast of the 2023 season, a cornerstone of Disney’s ESPN line-up. The companies called the agreement “transformative”.

The agreement includes a smaller, “more curated” line-up of Disney networks, including the full suite of ESPN sports channels, FX, and Nat Geo, among others. Charter subscribers will lose access to some Disney networks, including Disney Junior, Freeform, Nat Geo Wild and Nat Geo Mundo.

Financial terms were not disclosed. Disney said Charter will pay “market based rates”. Previously, Charter has said it was prepared to pay Disney more than $2.2bn in 2023 for its programming.

Disney chief executive Bob Iger has discussed a plan to launch a streaming version of its ESPN network that will carry hours of live sports and other programming that is today available only on cable. Given ESPN’s importance to the cable TV industry, the idea represents a further potential threat to the providers such as Charter and its Spectrum service.

But in the agreement announced on Monday, the companies said this streaming version of ESPN will be available to Spectrum customers when it is launched.

The blackout of Disney programming began on the evening of August 31, and left nearly 15mn US cable subscribers in the dark during the US Open tennis tournament and the start of the US college football season. State authorities including New York Governor Kathy Hochul had pressed both companies to offer compensation to Charter’s Spectrum television subscribers for the period, though it was not immediately clear if such refunds would be made available.

In the intervening days, both companies offered tense updates on the nature of their dispute and offers to customers. Disney promoted subscriptions to its direct-to-consumer streaming service, Hulu, in which it holds a majority stake alongside Comcast.

Other streaming television services, including Sling and Fubo, have offered promotions to affected Spectrum customers in recent days.

Analysts had seen the dispute as a potential turning point in cable TV. In previous “carriage disputes”, media groups such as Disney had most of the leverage thanks to the demand for their programming.

But as streaming has grown, Charter has started making more money from selling broadband and mobile services, not cable TV packages, noted Alan Wolk, co-founder and lead analyst at TVRev, a research firm.

This made Winfrey’s threats to abandon the cable TV business altogether seem more credible — even as Disney continues to rely on profits from its cable TV networks to support its streaming investments.

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