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AT&T Customers Brace for Big Disney Blackout — ABC Stations, ESPN, Disney Channel All At Risk

Phillip Dampier September 10, 2019 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, DirecTV Now, Online Video 2 Comments

The Walt Disney Co., is warning AT&T U-verse, TV Now, and DirecTV customers that a blackout of Disney-owned ABC stations, ESPN, Freeform, and the Disney Channel is imminent because AT&T has not yet agreed on renewal terms.

If an agreement is not signed before the end of the month, AT&T video customers across the country are looking at a third major programming blackout this year.

“The Disney owned networks and stations have agreements in place with all of the major video providers in DirecTV and AT&T video territories, including Comcast, Verizon FiOS, Cox, Optimum, Frontier and others, and we have a strong track record of successfully reaching multi-year agreements with these and other TV providers,” the company said in a statement. “Unfortunately, so far AT&T has refused to reach a fair, market-based agreement with us, despite the fact that the terms we are seeking are in line with recent marketplace deals we have reached with other distributors.”

The last contract renewal DirecTV signed with Disney was in late 2014. It is likely AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV allowed the company to combine its U-verse and streaming agreements with the much larger contract with the satellite TV company, with AT&T’s combined carriage agreement likely to expire on Sept. 30, 2019.

AT&T has spent much of 2019 playing hardball with programmers, willing to let their contracts expire and blackout affected stations and networks. Earlier this year, customers lost access to local TV stations owned by CBS, Nexstar, and a handful of local stations under contract with Sinclair Broadcasting. Customers also lost access to the Altitude Sports and Entertainment Network, a regional sports channel, at the end of August. In some cases, it took several weeks to reach a negotiated settlement with local station owners.

It seems likely Walt Disney will find a similar level of intransigence with AT&T’s negotiating team. AT&T is already preparing its customers for a potential protracted fight and blackout.

“We’re disappointed to see The Walt Disney Co. put their viewers into the middle of negotiations. We are on the side of consumer choice and value and want to keep Disney channels and owned-and-operated local ABC stations in eight cities in our customers’ lineups,” AT&T said in a statement. “We hope to avoid any interruption to the services some of our customers care about. Our goal is always to deliver the content our customers want at a value that also makes sense to them. We’ll continue to fight for that here and appreciate their patience while we work this matter out.”

Any blackout would impact Disney-owned and operated ABC affiliates, including:

  • WABC-TV 7 New York
  • KABC-TV 7 Los Angeles
  • WTVD-TV 11 Raleigh-Durham, N.C.
  • KGO-TV 7 San Francisco
  • KTRK-TV 13 Houston
  • KFSN-TV 30 Fresno, Calif.
  • WLS-TV 7 Chicago
  • WPVI-TV 6 Philadelphia

CBS and AT&T Reach Carriage Agreement, CBS Sports Net and Smithsonian Channel Part of Deal

Phillip Dampier August 8, 2019 AT&T, Consumer News, DirecTV, DirecTV Now, Online Video No Comments

CBS and AT&T have agreed to end the blackout of 26 CBS owned and operated TV stations in 17 markets including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta, Tampa, Seattle, Detroit, Minneapolis, Miami, Denver, Sacramento, Pittsburgh and Baltimore. CBS local stations in these areas will return to AT&T U-verse, DirecTV, and DirecTV Now lineups sometime today.

The renewed retransmission consent contract covers carriage of these stations and CBS-owned CBS Sports Network and Smithsonian Channel for the next several years and could broaden carriage of the two CBS cable networks to additional AT&T platforms in the coming months.

Terms of the agreement were not disclosed, but analysts suggest AT&T is now paying several dollars a month per subscriber for each over the air station. AT&T had earlier claimed CBS was being unreasonable in requesting a substantial hike in rates to continue carrying stations that viewers can get over the air for free.

AT&T is still engaged in weeks-long disputes with several Nexstar and Sinclair-managed local station, resulting in ongoing station blackouts in markets around the country.

DirecTV Now Becomes AT&T TV Now, With AT&T TV Coming Later This Summer

Phillip Dampier July 30, 2019 AT&T, Consumer News, DirecTV, DirecTV Now, Online Video 1 Comment

DirecTV Now customers will soon be introduced to AT&T TV Now as the streaming service rebrands with new apps and prepares for the launch of WarnerMedia’s HBO Max streaming service early next year.

The streaming service, originally branded as part of the DirecTV platform, has suffered major subscriber losses (168,000 in the last three months alone) after reducing the size of its TV packages and raising prices twice in the last year. To date, more than 26% of DirecTV Now’s subscriber base has defected to other streaming services, with no end to those losses in sight. AT&T’s DirecTV satellite and U-verse TV have also turned in stunning reductions in the number of subscribers, losing at least two million customers in the last year, with 778,000 departing during the second quarter of 2019.

AT&T has stopped offering deep promotional discounts to most customers threatening to cancel over rate hikes, and subscribers are making good on their threats to leave. The company is also embroiled in two major retransmission consent disputes that have left customers in several cities facing a blackout of as many as three network affiliated local TV stations. With higher prices for fewer channels, and plenty of alternatives, customers are turning to other providers.

AT&T’s 2015 purchase of DirecTV, in retrospect, appears to have been a major business mistake, according to some Wall Street analysts. Originally intended to help AT&T manage the spiraling costs of video for its U-verse TV service by winning more generous volume discounts from programmers, the DirecTV acquisition came just before the phenomenon of cord-cutting took off, leaving all of AT&T’s video services vulnerable to customer losses. DirecTV Now initially benefited from cord-cutters attracted to its generous package of channels at a low price, but an executive decision to reduce the channel lineup while raising prices drove off what executives characterized as ‘undesirable customers only looking for deals.’

AT&T has also been experimenting with a separate streaming service that will likely eventually replace the satellite-based DirecTV. Beta testers have been providing feedback to AT&T about a new set top streaming box intended to work with this service, now to be called AT&T TV. AT&T is also reducing the number of apps required to access its myriad of video services. AT&T TV and AT&T TV Now customers will download the same app, only the channel lineups will be different. The company is targeting AT&T TV Now on cord-cutters looking for a cheaper and smaller video package, while AT&T TV will include a range of packages likely identical or very similar to DirecTV’s current satellite lineup.

If AT&T TV is successful, AT&T can cut costs incurred installing and maintaining satellite dishes and also eventually decommission DirecTV’s satellite fleet. Rural satellite TV customers without access to broadband may be in a difficult position if that happens, and the country has still not resolved the rural broadband challenge.

Even with these changes, AT&T customers are faced with a large menu of potentially confusing video options. AT&T sells traditional live cable TV services through AT&T TV, AT&T TV Now, DirecTV, and U-verse. It also offers a stripped down WatchTV package offering 35 channels for $15 a month or less. Premium customers still trying to tell the difference between HBO Go and HBO Now will soon also contend with HBO Max. Cinemax has its own similar offerings for cable TV customers and direct to consumer subscribers.

DirecTV Customers in 17 Major Cities Face CBS, CW Station Blackout

Phillip Dampier July 16, 2019 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, DirecTV Now, Online Video 1 Comment

AT&T is facing a last hour showdown with CBS owned and operated local TV stations in 17 major U.S. cities over a new retransmission consent contract that could mean the third major station blackout for customers of DirecTV, DirecTV Now, and AT&T U-verse. Streaming customers would also lose access to on-demand content. In addition, CBS-owned CW television stations would be dropped from all three AT&T-owned services.

AT&T’s contract with CBS affiliates in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Sacramento, San Francisco, Seattle, and Tampa expires at 11pm PDT on Friday, July 19. At the moment, the two parties are reportedly far apart in negotiations, with AT&T complaining CBS is proposing “unfair terms” for a contract renewal.

CBS claims AT&T is offering below-market pricing for a contract renewal, noting that other cable, telephone, and satellite providers readily agreed to pay higher prices to continue carrying CBS’ major market affiliates.

AT&T has already left customers blacked out from nearly 150 local stations owned by Nexstar and several smaller owners — some effectively front groups for Sinclair Broadcasting — with no end in sight. Both sides are taking heat from public officials and members of Congress upset with the loss of one or more local stations, and the latest blackout of CBS stations could result in even greater scrutiny of AT&T and station owners.

AT&T issued a statement warning customers to be ready for the blackout by this weekend, and complained CBS was negotiating in public.

“We’re disappointed to see CBS put our customers into the middle of negotiations,” AT&T said in a statement. “AT&T is on the side of customer choice and value and wants to keep the local CBS stations in affected cities in our customers’ lineups. Our goal is always to deliver the content our customers want at a value that also makes sense to them. We continue to fight hard for that here and appreciate our customers’ patience while we work this out with CBS.”

Take It Or Leave It Pricing: No, You May Not Have a Better Deal!

GIVE us more money and TAKE what we offer you.

Bloomberg News is reporting what many of you already know — it is getting tougher to get a better deal from your cable or phone company.

As Stop the Cap! has documented since the completion of the Time Warner Cable/Bright House/Charter Spectrum merger in 2016, companies are pulling back on promotions, taking advantage of a lack of competition and offering best pricing only to new customers.

Charter Spectrum and Cable One (soon to be Sparklight) are the most notorious for implementing “take it or leave it” pricing. In fact, one of Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge’s chief complaints about Time Warner Cable was its “Turkish Bazaar” mentality about pricing. Rutledge claimed Time Warner Cable had as many as 90,000 different promotions running at the same time, typically targeted on what other companies were theoretically providing service and how serious the representative felt you were about canceling service. Time Warner Cable had basic retention plans available for regular representatives to offer, better plans for retention specialists to pitch, and the best plans of all to customers complaining on the “executive customer service” line or after filing complaints with the Better Business Bureau. There were plans for complaining over the phone and different plans for complaining at the cable store. Rutledge was horrified, because customers were now well-trained on how to extract a better deal every year when promotions ran out.

Last month, Rutledge said he was indifferent about cash-strapped consumers that cannot afford a runaway cable TV bill on a retired/fixed income or the urban poor who can’t imagine paying $65 a month for basic broadband service. To those customers, pointing to the exit is now perfectly acceptable. In fact, companies make more profit than ever when you drop cable television service and upgrade your broadband connection to a faster speed. That is because there is up to a 90% margin on internet service — provisioned over a network paid off decades ago and designed for much less space efficient analog television. Charging you $20 more for faster internet service is nearly 100% profit and costs most companies next to nothing to offer, and Time Warner Cable executives once laughed off the financial impact of so-called “heavy users,” calling data transport costs mere “rounding errors.” 

Even with a much tougher attitude about discounting service, Charter and Comcast are still adding new broadband customers every month, usually at the expense of phone companies still peddling DSL. So if you cancel, there are probably two new customers ready to replace you, at least for now.

Cable One redefines rapacious pricing. The company specializes in markets where the incumbent phone company is likely to offer low-speed DSL, if anything at all. As a result, they have a comfortable monopoly in many areas and price their service accordingly. Cable One’s basic 200 Mbps plan, with a 600 GB data cap, costs $65 a month, not including the $10.50/mo modem fee, and $2.75 monthly internet service surcharge. To ditch the cap, you will pay another $40 a month — $118.25 total for unlimited internet.

In fact, Cable One charges so much money for internet, they even have Wall Street concerned they are overcharging!

When Joshua May tried calling Spectrum to deal with the 29% more it wanted (around $40 a month) after his promotion expired, the customer service representative told him to go pound salt.

“I expected they’d at least offer free HBO or Showtime,” May, 34, of Springfield, Ohio, told Bloomberg News. “They did nothing.”

He did something. He cut the cord. The representative could have cared less.

The product mix cable and phone companies offer has not really changed, but the era of shoving a triple play bundle of internet, TV, and phone service sure has. Charter and Comcast now treat cable television as a nice extra, not the start of a bundle offer. Broadband is the key item, and the most profitable element, of today’s cable package. Beleaguered phone service gets no respect either. Time Warner Cable used to sell its triple play bundle including a phone line for less money than their double play bundle that omitted it. Today, it’s a simple $9.99/mo extra, given as much attention as a menu offering premium movie channels.

Comcast differs from Charter by offering a plethora of options to their customers. If you don’t want to spend a lot for high speed internet, spend a little less for low speed internet. Their television packages also vary in price and channel selection, often maddeningly including a “must-have” channel in a higher-priced package. Like Spectrum, their phone line is now an afterthought.

AT&T and Verizon have their own approaches to deal with reluctant customers. Verizon FiOS customers face steep price hikes when their promotions expire, but the opportunity to score a better deal is still there, if Verizon is in the mood that quarter. Verizon remains sensitive about their subscriber numbers and growth, so when a quarter looks like it will be difficult, the promotions turn up. AT&T prefers to play a shell game with their customers. Most recently, the company has given a cold shoulder to its U-verse product, treating it like yesterday’s news and best forgotten. AT&T literally markets its own customers to abandon U-verse in favor of AT&T Fiber. Verizon and AT&T treat their DSL customers like they are doing them a favor just by offering any service. All the best deals go to their fiber customers.

AT&T Randall Stephenson is a recent convert to the “who cares about video customers” movement. Services like DirecTV Now were originally channel-rich bargains, but now they are a place for rate hikes and channel deletions. Over a half-million streaming customers have already canceled after the most recent price hikes, but Stephenson claims he does not mind, because those bargain-chasers are low-quality customers worthy of purging. AT&T’s dream customer is one who appreciates whatever AT&T gives them and does not mind a parade of rate hikes.

Comcast’s chief financial officer Mike Cavanagh said it more succinctly: seeking subscribers that “really value video and our bundle despite the increases in prices,” and has “the wallet for a fuller video experience.”

Customers who decide to take their business to a streaming competitor are already learning the industry still has the last laugh. As package prices head north of $50/month, that is not too far off from the pricing offered by cable and phone companies for base video packages. In fact, Spectrum has begun undercutting most streaming providers, offering $15-25 packages of local and/or popular cable channels with a Cloud DVR option for around $5 more a month.

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  • James Phares: Unfortunately, in my location, Spectrum is still my best Internet option because the only other broadband option is AT&T. At least I'm able to sa...
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