In a sports summer filled with holdouts and contract disputes, this might be the pettiest one yet.
AT&T’s carriage contract with the Walt Disney Company will run out at the end of this month, and both sides are struggling to reach an agreement. If one is not reached soon, DirecTV and U-Verse viewers could lose the ESPN networks, as well as the Disney Channel, Freeform, and eight ABC affiliates directly owned by Disney (six of which are in markets with NFL, NBA, and MLB franchises).
As with most disputes between media goliaths and television providers, each side has tried its best to make the other look like the villain. The ESPN networks, for their part, have flashed occasional messages, such as these on the BottomLine during this Monday’s football doubleheader, reminding them of what they would lose if AT&T didn’t pay up:
However, AT&T/DirecTV have been just as aggressive — and downright petty — in their negotiation tactics, digitally imposing a black bar on the ESPN BottomLine whenever the message comes up:
Both sides have been secretive about even the most minute details of the dispute, including the deadline for when the channels would be pulled, although that is generally agreed to be sometime within the next two weeks. Some sources, such as WOWT-TV anchor Dave Zawilinski, believe it may be as early as tonight.
Disney has little to lose, as it can woo aggrieved customers over to its over-the-top streaming services, ESPN+ and Disney+. AT&T, meanwhile, would lose Disney’s channels from its linear platforms, but its own over-the-top service, DirecTV Now.
Whether a deal is reached at the eleventh hour or not, neither side will come out of this looking clean.