By Phillip Swann
The TV Answer Man – @tvanswerman

TV Answer Man, we have lost ESPN and a bunch of other channels because of this fight between Disney and Spectrum TV. Do you know when this will end? Should I switch to another service with college football coming up? — Denise, Raleigh, North Carolina.
Denise, Charter’s Spectrum TV last night lost 26 Disney channels, including ESPN and ABC-owned local channels in select markets (including Raleigh), due to a carriage dispute between the companies. The blackout came after Disney and Charter continued negotiating last night after the 5 p.m. ET deadline for a new agreement passed. But three hours later, Charter announced that the Disney channels had been removed, indicating that the extended talks were unsuccessful. So now the question is: When will it end?

It’s often a sign that a blackout will be short if the companies continue talking after the original deadline passes without channels being removed. That shows that Disney and Charter were close enough that they thought they could hammer out a deal if they kept negotiating for a few more hours. But on the negative side, Charter last night announced that it was holding a webcast today at 8:30 a.m. ET to discuss the status of the dispute. That suggests the company is preparing for a longer-term impasse and it wants to present its case to the financial community in case it does go long.

More on the negative side: Charter and Disney may not only be fighting about carriage fees for the Disney-owned channels. The cable TV operator is seeking to provide greater subscriber flexibility in determining which sports channels, if any, will be in your programming package. ESPN is the industry’s most expensive channel to carry so a TV provider has to charge more if a plan includes the sports network. Charter may want to drop ESPN from certain packages, allowing customers to pay less, which in turn could reduce cord cutting. But Disney/ESPN would likely oppose that because they get paid based on the number of subscribers that have the network in their plans.

This is a particularly thorny issue because the pay TV industry is in rapid decline, losing millions of subscribers every year. How programming packages are set now will determine how long the providers can continue to operate, and how much money programmers can expect in the coming years. Yet another complication: Disney executives have openly discussed selling ESPN as a standalone streaming service in the next few years, which could severely wound the pay TV operators. If consumers could get ESPN without subscribing to a pay TV service, many more would cut the cord.

Charter last night issued this statement reflecting the divide: “We would agree to The Walt Disney Company’s significant rate increase despite their declining ratings. But they are trying to force our customers to pay for their very expensive programming, even those customers who don’t want it or worse, can’t afford it. The current video ecosystem is broken. With The Walt Disney Company, we have proposed a model that creates better alignment for the industry and better choices for our customers. We are hopeful we can find a path forward.”

These issues may sound so complicated that it would seem impossible to reach an agreement anytime soon. However, let’s reiterate that the companies did keep talking after the 5 p.m. ET deadline last night. They can’t be that far apart. So, I predict that the Disney-Spectrum TV blackout will last less than two weeks, and likely less than one. Spectrum TV has nearly 15 million subscribers, including the major markets of New York and Los Angeles. Disney can’t afford to go without that audience for long. Likewise, Charter knows that every day without ESPN during the college football season is a day with fewer subscribers. Both companies have strong motivation to make a deal sooner than later.

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— Phillip Swann