By Dawn Chmielewski
(Reuters) - Football fans will be the next biggest losers if an epic battle between Walt Disney and Charter Communications fails to settle before the kickoff of Monday Night Football next week.
ESPN and other Disney channels disappeared from Charter's Spectrum cable service on Aug. 31, as contract negotiations reached an impasse. That deprived nearly 15 million Spectrum cable subscribers of access to key sporting events, potentially including Saturday's U.S. Open match pitting 19-year-old American Coco Gauff against the world's highest ranked player, Aryna Sabalenka, in the women's final.
If an agreement cannot be reached by Monday evening, Spectrum subscribers in New York and Los Angeles will be unable to watch the first Monday Night Football game of the season, pitting the Buffalo Bills against the New York Jets, now led by veteran quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Disney announced this spring that Monday Night Football games would be carried on both ESPN and its ABC Network. That means Spectrum cable subscribers who live in markets with a local ABC TV affiliate not owned by Disney, including Buffalo, New York, will be able to watch Monday's NFL match-up broadcast. That's not the case for Spectrum video customers who live in New York City and Los Angeles, which are served by Disney-owned television stations.
Self-proclaimed Bills fan Kris Shofner expressed her anger over the black-out on social media.
"I have already missed a week of my @USOpen tennis and it looks like I will miss the finals!" Shofner wrote on X, the platform previously known as Twitter. "I waited all summer long for the US Open and I got screwed!"
Such "carriage disputes" are commonplace in the media world, Charter argues this negotiation is different because the video ecosystem is broken. Some 25 million cable subscribers have cut the cord, industry-wide, over the last five years, as rising prices for content translate to higher fees for subscribers, contributing to the exodus.
Charter is seeking greater flexibility in its programming packages and the ability to offer Disney's ad-supported streaming services to its subscribers at no additional charge.
Disney counts on fees that companies such as Charter pay to partly cover rising programming costs, including the rights to air sports such as the NFL and the NBA. It said in a statement on Thursday that it “stands ready” to resolve the carriage dispute, and “do what’s in the best interests” of Charter’s customers.
Spectrum referred its subscribers to the sports streaming service Fubo, which carries ESPN's Monday Night Football games, and is offering cable customers a discount of 25% to 35% for the first two months, depending on the plan. Disney, for its part, announced a discount for its Hulu + Live TV service, which will provide access to the U.S. Open, college football and NFL games. The promotion offers the service for $50 a month for three months, a $20 monthly savings.
(Reporting by Dawn Chmielewski in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler)