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Contract talks between satellite-broadcaster Dish and a passel of regional sports cable networks in process of being sold by Walt Disney have reached an impasse, meaning that Dish subscribers are at present not able to gain access to outlets such as Fox Sports Arizona and Fox Sports SportsTime Ohio.
In almost all cases, the 16 regional sports networks, which are being supervised by separate executives than the ones who operate Disney’s cable networks, are no longer available on Dish or its Sling broadband offering. YES, the cable network that shows Yankees games, among other programming, is off of Sling, but available on Dish.
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“Sports programming, no surprise, is the most expensive programming content and the most expensive part of the customer’s bill,” says Andy LeCuyer, senior vice president of programming for Dish, in an interview. “It’s not fundamentally fair to force the vast majority of viewers who choose not to receive that content to pay for it.”
The fracture is the latest break between programmers and distributors of content at a time when the revenue media companies wring from satellite and cable companies has become much more desirable. Audiences are migrating to new streaming services, putting pressure on the ability of TV networks to get revenue from advertising and syndication.
Dish, which in recent years has developed a reputation as a hard bargainer in these types of negotiations, could face unique pressures in this particular one. Regional sports outlets are prized by local fans of teams around the nation. The sports networks are often more expensive to carry than bigger entertainment networks, but the viewers who rely on them often prize them more than cable outlets that carry news, documentary programming or movies. As more consumers opts for broadband delivery of TV, however, cable and satellite companies have found carriage of the regional sports outlets more onerous.
This isn’t Dish’s only squabble in recent months. The satellite company hasn’t had WarnerMedia’s HBO or Cinemax available since November, the result of a breakdown in talks between Dish and the AT&T-owned media company. Dish recently ended a carriage fight with Spanish-language broadcaster Univision after nine months.
Other companies are also fighting over carriage. AT&T’s DirecTV and U-verse are not currently carrying CBS stations, a move that affects at least six million subscribers in various markets. Nexstar, the local TV station owner, is also off AT&T’s properties.
Ownership of the regional sports properties is expected to transfer from Disney to other companies in weeks to come. Sinclair Broadcast Group has agreed to buy 21 of the networks from Disney in a deal valued at $10.6 billion. Meanwhile, YES is being bought by a group that includes the Yankees and e-commerce giant Amazon, as well as Sinclair, which will have a smaller ownership stake in the venture.
Dish said it had hoped to strike an extension agreement with the regional sports outlets, but was not able to do so. The company offered a short-term contract extension that it said had a built-in rate adjustment and would have allowed customers to continue to watch the networks while talks continued. Dish’s LeCuyer said the sports-cable negotiators suggested an extension that would have ended right before the opening of the 2020 Major League Baseball season – a move that would have put Dish in the position of walking away from discussions just before baseball fans rely on the sports outlets for access to local games. “Calling that an extension may be a little bit of a stretch,” he says.
The executive says Dish is always willing to hold further talks on the matter, but at present, “the ball is in their court.”