Sports fans nationwide may soon find themselves cut off from some of the most anticipated televised football games of the year as massive media and television companies go to war with one another over the programming fees required to air those matches.
Beginning next week, TV customers on Verizon FiOS and Charter’s Spectrum service could be hit by widespread channel blackouts after the companies’ contracts with major programming giants expire.
Verizon’s 4.5 million TV customers could lose access to ESPN, Freeform and the Disney Channel and other networks belonging to Disney, as well as ABC affiliates based in Philadelphia and New York, on Dec. 31. Meanwhile, some 6 million Spectrum viewers could miss out on programming from Tribune Media in as many as two dozen markets across the country starting Jan. 1.
The disputes highlight how rising media consolidation in America, along with the pressures brought by cord-cutting, have increasingly turned contract-renewal talks into a high-stakes, winner-take-all affair. As more content has come under the ownership umbrella of a shrinking handful of powerful firms — and with many Americans restricted to just a few cable options — companies now undergo bruising, months-long fights over content pricing and terms. In November, HBO went offline for Dish Network customers for the first time in the premium channel’s history; the spat remains unresolved.
The contract fight between Verizon and Disney has spilled out into the public this week, with both companies sending out messages to customers notifying them who will be to blame if a new deal isn’t signed by the deadline.
Verizon began delivering emails to customers on Wednesday accusing Disney of trying to jack up its prices for content, as well as attempting to force Verizon TV subscribers to pay for an additional channel devoted to regional sports, the ACC Network. Verizon said Disney is seeking “hundreds of millions of dollars more” than what Verizon had paid in the past.
“The rising cost of programming is the biggest factor in higher TV bills and we are standing up to networks like Disney, refusing to accept these huge increases,” Verizon said. Company spokeswoman Adria Tomaszewski said in a statement that Verizon is “actively negotiating with Disney to ensure the best deal for our customers.”
Disney didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But the company is now running ads targeting FiOS customers, urging them to call Verizon “to keep the networks you are paying for!” The ad features logos for key channels and events that could go dark, including the Disney Channel and the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Rose Bowl game. ABC and ESPN are also expected to carry one of the National Football League’s wild-card playoff games and the Pro Bowl.
NFL playoffs could also become harder to access for Spectrum customers as a result of its dispute with Tribune, according to a company spokesman, because Tribune operates CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates in various markets.
“We want football fans in our markets to be able to watch these games and root for their favorite teams — we want to reach an agreement with Spectrum,” said Gary Weitman, Tribune’s senior vice president for corporate relations. “We’ve offered Spectrum fair market rates for our top-rated local news, live sports and high-quality entertainment programming, and similarly fair rates for our cable network, WGN America. Spectrum has refused our offer.”
Justin Venech, a spokesman for Spectrum’s parent, Charter Communications, said the company is negotiating with Tribune and “we hope to reach a fair agreement.”
Despite the looming headache for pay-TV subscribers, those with digital TV antennas could still get around a blackout by tuning into broadcast networks directly.