Channels are increasingly coming and going, and often coming back again, in today’s growingly messy and bitter media company turf war battle royale. Local network affiliates, sports regional channels, and second and third-tier sports networks are often casualties for fans just looking to watch a damn game. It’s the new status quo and it sucks.
But through the years, ESPN and by extension their owner, Disney, have largely avoided any notable or prolonged distribution setbacks. At the end of the day, no cable or satellite company wanted the headache of dropping the channel and dealing with the nightmare of angry customers leaving en masse. ESPN, coupled with other Disney assets, was just too damn important to pull the rug out from under customers. You’d almost have to bring it back before a huge chunk of your customer base was out the door, and whatever negotiation leverage you gained would probably not be worth the amount of fleeing customers you’d lose.
Perhaps that thinking is changing. Monday Night Football viewers on AT&T-owned television platforms were bombarded with various calls to arms that ESPN and Disney’s carriage with AT&T was in jeopardy.
Before jumping into ESPN’s tactics, a look at how ESPN and AT&T are spinning this:
AT&T statement: "We’re disappointed to see The Walt Disney Co. put their viewers into the middle of negotiations. We are on the side of consumer choice and value and want to keep Disney channels and owned-and-operated local ABC stations in eight cities in our customers’ lineups."
— John Ourand (@Ourand_SBJ) September 10, 2019
So how did we get to DEFCON 1 for sports fans who are customers of the bigger telecom and television giant? ESPN fired the first salvo with the commercial seen below during the evening’s first Monday Night Football game. The following ad was only shown to customers of AT&T platforms:
ESPN fires first warning shot at AT&T customers pic.twitter.com/Mk6IphOOQT
— Ben Koo (@bkoo) September 10, 2019
The ad would air several more times for AT&T customers, but ESPN had other tricks in their bag beyond just the commercial. Below, you’ll see what they showed on the ESPN Bottom line for AT&T customers:
ESPN with some ticker shade at AT&T pic.twitter.com/vGo5YcO2ag
— Ben Koo (@bkoo) September 10, 2019
For cable viewers, you can see that they were getting a different experience than the clip above:
For former AV club members, the technical explanation of the different feeds:
All you need is a separate net control room for the DTV and Uverse transmission. With that you can create a different programming experience for a particular distributor. It’s a very effective way to apply pressure. https://t.co/5WttgR3gG0
— Patrick Crakes (@Aquinas82nd) September 10, 2019
Separate net control rooms for transmission. Duh.
We reached out to DirecTV and their standard boilerplate comment:
Beyond ESPN injecting messages through out the highly viewed MNF, it seems this was in conjunction with MNF being blacked out for various AT&T customers who were streaming the game.
— Rob Korlewitz (@RobbleDBobble) September 10, 2019
— CreativeImageDesign (@robbiedestocki) September 10, 2019
@ATTHelp please explain to me why this keeps happening.. so attnow changing the name from directvnow has done nothing. Terrible customer service. Chances are high you’ll ask me to message you and do nothing.. this is ESPN… how is Monday night football blacked out pic.twitter.com/scBByYh6uF
— connor lucas (@lilcnasty2) September 10, 2019
@ATT you need to fix your espn broadcast of monday night football. This message keeps popping up. Missing some of the game, keeps telling me the broadcast is blacked out. Look at the picture below. ATT get your shit together. I have ESPN in my Att- tv package. pic.twitter.com/bCFdYxgvCb
— Thunder Garcia (@GarciaThunder) September 10, 2019
This time around, the stakes are MUCH bigger, given AT&T’s significantly larger customer base and the fact that ESPN has come out swinging so aggressively. Considering ESPN seems to be showcasing games that air this upcoming weekend and next week, it seems to indicate that there’s some chance ESPN could go dark before the weekend.
However, short-term extensions are often reached while a long-term extension is being worked on. While that’s hopefully the case here, AT&T U-verse dumped NFL Network and the insanely popular NFL Red Zone. They seem fine just pocketing that money, even if it means customers will bolt. Could AT&T stomach the hell Disney and ESPN would put them through if they aren’t able to keep the channels in the short-term or long-term? You’d think they’d ultimately agree to a deal, but perhaps we’re at the breaking point where ESPN finds themselves no longer immortal as the cable universe continues to unravel.