Cable Viewers Could Lose ESPN and ABC in Another Contract Dispute

Image: The ESPN logo is seen on an electronic display in Times Square in New York City
The ESPN logo is seen on an electronic display in Times Square in New York City, U.S., August 23, 2017.MIKE SEGAR / Reuters

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
By Claire Atkinson

Some cable subscribers may lose access to ESPN and the ABC network this fall if talks between Disney and cable company Altice USA break down.

Altice, a French company, acquired the Cablevision systems in the New York tri-state area in 2016.

Talks are getting down to the wire as the contract with Disney, which owns ESPN, ABC and several other channels, expires on Sept. 30, according to sources close to conversations, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.

Disney is asking for a “gigantic” pay rise for its package of channels, according to one source, which could result in a black-out if the two companies do not come to terms.

These disputes between cable systems and the companies that supply their content often occur at the end of a contract, and typically the cable distributors threaten to drop the channels to demonstrate their leverage and avoid paying the requested amounts. Sometimes they extend negotiations and continue to carry TV services if relations haven’t broken down, but there have been disputes that leave subscribers in the dark.

Altice is planning for the worst-case scenario though talks are still active, and both sides appear hopeful for a deal, the sources told NBC News, though they are still far apart on terms.

Lisa Anselmo, a spokeswoman for Altice, said she couldn't comment on the current negotiations, but said the demands for higher fees by channel owners are the greatest contributor to rising cable bills, particularly when viewership of those channels is declining.

"We are always working hard to keep these costs as low as possible for consumers by negotiating carriage agreements that are reasonable and in the best interest of all our customers," Anselmo said.

A Disney representative declined to comment.

Disney negotiates with distribution partners for all of its channels, which include the ABC broadcast network, the Disney channel and the various ESPN channels. ESPN receives by far the biggest slice of a distributor's budget.

SNL Kagan, a forecasting company, estimates that distributors paid on average $7.54 per subscriber per month for the sports network, which is suffering from declining ratings, along with many other cable networks.

Disney has upset cable distributors with plans to launch its own direct-to-consumer products for both its sports and movie products, since cable operators compete to sell customers their video content. Their content partners are now very much their competitors in this field as the so-called cord-cutting universe grows.