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ESPN-Altice Showdown Could Impact Entire TV Industry

Disney-owned ESPN is demanding that cable operator Altice, which serves roughly 2.5 million video customers in New York, New Jersey and  Connecticut, carry the ACC Network and the SEC Network as part of a new carriage agreement now under negotiation.

In addition, ESPN wants Altice, formerly known as Cablevision, to include its flagship channel in more programming packages. If Altice balks at the demands, writes Bloomberg News, the cable operator could lose Disney’s entire suite of channels (ESPN, Disney Channel, ABC-owned local affiliate, etc.) when the current carriage pact expires September 30.

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While the ESPN-Altice stalemate directly impacts a relatively small number of subscribers, the negotiation is likely being viewed closely by other pay TV operators which have said they want to carry fewer niche sports channels to save money.

In addition, to reduce subscriber fees, some pay TV ops have also removed ESPN from certain programming plans. (ESPN demands high carriage fees so pay TV ops have to pay more if they carry it in every plan.).

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If ESPN can use its most popular channel as leverage to force Altice to carry the SEC Network and ACC Network, as well as include ESPN in more packages, it might lead to more pay TV services acquiescing in similar negotiations in the future.

That would be a major victory for ESPN which has lost several million subscribers in the last few years due to cord-cutting and cord-shaving. The sports network is also concerned that its niche sports channels, such as the Longhorn Network, the SEC Network and the ACC Network, may not survive in the current environment where pay TV ops are seeking to reduce program acquisition costs.

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Bloomberg writes that BTIG financial analyst Rich Greenfield, a frequent Disney critic, says ESPN and Disney have several other carriage fights on the schedule in the next few years. That makes the Altice outcome even more important as it would set the tone for future talks.

— Phillip Swann