By now, you’ve probably heard (or seen, if you’re a subscriber) that AT&T and Disney are throwing elbows at each other, because the existing carriage agreement between the two corporate behemoths is in its final days. What hasn’t been firmly reported is exactly when the current agreement lapses, which could trigger the removal of ESPN and other popular Disney owned channels.
Neither company is offering up too much information on when the current deal will end, and most reports speculate (or are flat out reporting) that the current deal ends at the end of the month. The explanation, from outlets like Multichannel News, generally goes something like this.
Disney wouldn’t say when their deal with AT&T expires, but it is likely to be at the end of the month. Disney last reached a carriage deal with DirecTV in December 2014 for a deal that initially expired on Sept. 30 of that year.
John Ourand over at the Sports Business Journal echoed the same thought in his writeup of the dispute.
Disney’s overall carriage deal with AT&T ends at the end of the month;
Anthony Crupi had the same end of September date in Ad Age.
ESPN’s contract with the AT&T-owned distributors is set to expire at the end of September, and should an agreement fail to be reached before then.
These publications and reporters are usually good bets for coverage on carriage disputes, but something about the end of September date doesn’t really add up. First off, there are some reports that the deadline is actually Friday.
BREAKING- @raycoletv tells me, barring a last minute agreement, the Disney/AT&T(directv)carriage agreement will expire at midnight Friday. These customers across the nation will not have access to College Gameday or any ESPN gms this weekend if the 2 companies don’t come to terms
— Dave Zawilinski (@DavezONAIR) September 10, 2019
Beyond that report is ESPN’s messaging, which lists games being played *this* weekend as games AT&T customers could miss.
In the clip below, ESPN is clearly highlighting this weekend’s Florida vs. Kentucky game and Monday’s Jets vs. Browns game as two that fans can miss, and both are weeks before the reported end of September deadline.
ESPN fires first warning shot at AT&T customers pic.twitter.com/Mk6IphOOQT
— Ben Koo (@bkoo) September 10, 2019
For most of this week, the right corner of the Bottom Line for AT&T customers has also followed that messaging (at least when DirecTV hasn’t blocked the Bottom Line).
The general urgency from ESPN in recent days also provides a clue that the deadline is closer than the end of the month. This was on nobody’s radar until Monday Night Football this week. Now we’re seeing the network aggressively hammer this point home, which we’ve never really seen from them. Part of that is because it’s AT&T, which covers more than a quarter of all pay TV households in the US, but the timing of this marketing and PR blitz seems to point to that the end of the month deadline isn’t accurate. It’s hard to imagine they’d sound the alarms this loud and this early if there were still weeks of negotiation time left.
ESPN refused to comment on either the deadline or the messaging about games coming up this weekend. It would seem grossly unethical for ESPN to be riling up fans of teams playing in games that are not in jeopardy of not being shown to AT&T customers. If that’s the case, shame on them, but my thinking is that for some reason, despite the sound logic behind the Sept 30th date, there is enough smoke to think the current deal lapses before this weekend.
Now, does that mean ESPN and Disney channels will be pulled (which includes ABC in many markets)? A long term deal is often reached right around the end of an existing contract and in a lot of cases, if the two sides are getting close, short term extensions are reached so customers aren’t impacted while the particulars are getting hashed out. It’s basically like the debt ceiling in Congress, where there’s a whole lot of clamor, and it’s eventually raised anyway with no disruption to the government.
My guess is we probably get a few short terms extensions and the rhetoric dies down (and perhaps ESPN also tones down some of their messaging). That said, we’ve seen a lot of surprises in the last year with sports fans paying the price as the cable bundle unravels. Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that this time around.