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ESPN Blackout Threatens Monday Night Football: What You Need to Know

On Monday, Aaron Rogers will travel upstate for a showdown against the Buffalo Bills in his debut with the New York Jets. Nearly 15 million cable subscribers are likely to miss out on the action. ESPN, which will air the matchup in its first Monday Night Football broadcast of the 2023 NFL season, has gone dark in every home signed up for Spectrum cable service.

Disappointed fans can blame the ongoing dispute between Disney and Spectrum owner Charter Communications, which has left the two companies unable to agree to the terms of a new deal. Other Disney channels—including ABC, FX, Freeform, and National Geographic—have also been caught up in the fight, which spilled out into the public last Thursday as Disney pulled its networks from Spectrum.

These kinds of fights are relatively common—Disney has been involved in two in the past two years—but as Charter CEO Chris Winfrey warned last Friday in a call with investors, “This is not a typical carriage dispute. It’s significant for Charter, and we think it’s even more significant for programmers and the broader video ecosystem.” Both entertainment companies and cable providers are struggling to adjust to the rapid rise of streaming and the slow decline of linear television. How Disney and Charter resolve this fight could set the tone for similar contract negotiations in the months ahead.

Below, a primer on why Disney and Charter are fighting—and when Spectrum subscribers can expect to get Monday Night Football back.

Why did ESPN and other Disney channels vanish from Spectrum?

Every few years, the cable companies have to renegotiate their deals to carry the major TV networks as part of their subscription packages. Often they quietly strike a new deal and customers continue watching their favorite shows and sporting events without interruption. But there’s always the threat that if the two sides don’t agree on the new terms there could be a programming blackout.

That’s what happened with Disney and Charter. In a statement, Disney said that they offered to extend the negotiations through Labor Day weekend—while its channels were broadcasting live college football games and US Open matches—and that Charter declined. Charter, the second-largest cable provider in the nation, countered with a statement of its own that it offered a short-term contract extension that Disney did not accept.

What are Disney and Charter fighting about?

Even though this is a dispute over a cable TV deal, both companies are really worried about streaming. Charter says that Disney asked to be paid more for access to its suite of TV networks and that it would agree to those terms—but it wants to offer Spectrum subscribers not just Disney’s TV networks but also the ad-supported tiers of streaming services, including Disney+ and ESPN+, for free, as well as more flexible network bundles to customers. This would give Charter—which it says pays roughly $2.2 billion per year to carry Disney networks—a way to benefit from the rise of streaming, particularly as the major entertainment companies entice more people to ditch cable for these direct-to-consumer services.

Disney doesn’t want to give access to its streamers away for free because it “does not make economic sense,” as the company said in a blog post, and in a statement, it said that Charter “refused to enter into a new agreement with us that reflects market-based terms.” In other words, Disney is in the business of making money. After all, it promised investors that the streaming arm of its business would be profitable by the end of 2024. And it charges other cable providers, like Comcast, to offer those same streaming services.

Can Spectrum subscribers watch Disney programming during the blackout?

Sure, Disney would actually love Spectrum customers to sign up for Hulu’s live TV offering. “You don’t need a cable provider to watch your favorite live sports, news, and shows,” the company has been reminding people in ads. There’s also YouTube TV, and football fans might want to check out sports-centric streaming TV service Fubo.

Will a deal get done before the Jets-vs.-Bills kickoff?

There’s nothing like a deadline to motivate people, so ESPN could be back on Spectrum in time for Monday night’s game. But there’s a chance this disagreement could drag on for a while. Charter has threatened to “largely exit the traditional video business” unless it is able to develop new streaming partnerships like the one it has offered Disney. “We’re on the edge of a precipice,” Winfrey said. “We’re either moving forward with a new collaborative video model, or we’re moving on.”

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