A New York City hotel’s pay TV service, Spectrum, would normally have carried the US Open tennis tournament but couldn’t because ESPN, the Disney-owned broadcaster carrying the tournament, and Spectrum, owned by Charter Communications, were at odds over their carriage agreement. Situations like this have been relatively common in the pay TV universe over the years, and often motivate thousands of subscribers to seek the programming elsewhere.
The impasse was resolved on September 11, and end-user access to the programming was restored. But did piracy speed up talks?
Piracy admission was a subtext
Traditionally, hotels offer no choice when it comes to their in-house pay TV services. Athlete Daniil Medvedev, a highly-ranked player at the US Open tennis tournament, was hoping to watch match coverage from his room at this hotel, but he couldn’t because Disney-owned channels were blacked out on Spectrum the previous week as a result of the carriage dispute.
But hotel broadband access has changed all that: with a connection, hotel guests can access anything unless the property blocks domains (which some do, for porn sites). In fact, ESPN programming is available through multiple alternative sources, including ESPN’s own ESPN+ streaming service.
In a video interview, he let drop that “A lot of hotels have Spectrum. So I can’t watch on TV anymore,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s illegal, but I have to find a way… (probably) pirate websites or something … I have no other choice (crying emoji)”
Charter and Disney announced a resolution on Monday Sept 11, just before the first Monday Night Football program of the 2023 NFL season. In the resolution, Charter announced that it would offer Disney+ programming to some of its pay TV service tiers. “This deal recognizes both the continued value of linear television and the growing popularity of streaming services, while addressing the evolving needs of our consumers,” said Charter Communications CEO Chris Winfrey.
Charter also was able to drop some channels from its line-up, including several Fox entertainment and National Geographic channels (Fox News and Fox Sports remained with News Corp., and were not acquired by Disney in 2019).
No ESPN channels were dropped. Given consumer demand for sports programming, ESPN knows it has leverage. In the past, it has required pay TV operators to carry all of its channels – even those which have light viewership, taking up precious cable platform capacity – and also has a reputation for raising prices to operators.
On first blush, the agreement seems lopsided: none of Charter’s programming is being picked up by Disney+ in return. But it stands to reason, since the programming that Charter distributes through its Spectrum service is licensed from others. Through its pay TV operation and by owning many local broadband operators as channels to consumer and business subscribers, Charter’s main strength is in distribution.
The piracy admission was not mentioned.
Disney-Charter blackout forces tennis champion to stream ESPN’s US Open coverage on ‘Pirate Websites’: ‘I have no other choice.’ Article. By Todd Spangler. September 6, 2023. Variety
The Walt Disney Company and Charter Communications announce transformative agreement for distribution of Disney’s linear networks and direct-to-consumer services. Press release. Sept 11, 2023. Charter Communications
“I have no other choice”: Daniil Medvedev turns to pirate sites amid Spectrum-Disney dispute. Article. September 5, 2023. Tennis.com
ESPN, ABC and more Disney-owned channels go dark on Charter Spectrum amid carriage fight. Article. by J. Kim Murphy, August 31, 2023. Variety
“A lot of hotels have Spectrum…” Video interview clip. Daniil Medvedev. September 4, 2023. The Tennis Letter. Via X (the former Twitter)
Why it matters
It’s was not known whether the Medvedev ‘piracy’ admission added impetus to negotiations, nor whether that admission could eventually lead to actual copyright infringement charges against Medvedev.
While the topic of piracy is raised regularly between rights owners and distributors, it’s rarely raised by athletes. Streaming piracy has prevented or delayed agreements between sports leagues and distributors, one example being the dispute in which beIN Media abandoned its deal to carry Deutsche Bundesliga football programming a few years back, because of concerns that the latter would be unable to guarantee that beIN would be the exclusive distributor.
Meanwhile, the beIN case was ironic at the time because beIN Media itself had been victim of beoutQ, one of the largest known piracy cases, over the previous two years; in which beIN’s own programming had been hijacked and redistributed illegally.