Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Cable Fee Fight Takes Another Turn as Dish Networks Uses iTunes, Netflix and Amazon as Weapons

The basic contours of the TV programmer versus pay-TV provider fight are fundamental and unchanging: The programmer tries to get more money for his stuff, the pay-TV provider says that’s too much, and the two sides chest-bump for a while.

Eventually they settle, and you, the pay-TV customer, ends up paying more.

And that’s what’s happening in the latest dustup between Dish Networks, the satellite TV service, and AMC Networks, the programmers now best known as the guys who bring you “Mad Men,” “The Walking Dead” and “Breaking Bad.”

The slight twist here: For argument’s sake, at least, Dish is saying that because AMC is selling digital versions of those shows to other outlets, its hit shows are worth less to Dish subscribers. “It’s actually devalued,” says Dish chairman Charlie Ergen.

The fact that networks are selling or giving away their stuff online has been a minor but growing issue in carriage fights for a while now. But this is the biggest stink that a cable/pay TV provider has made about it, at least in public.*

Dish first brought this up via a press statement last week, but Ergen went on about it at length today during the Dish earnings call.

It’s worth reading. I’ve cleaned up his comments just a bit for clarity (note that AMC Networks includes multiple channels, including AMC, IFC and Sundance):

We have very, very specific viewer measurement. Much more granular than somebody like Nielsen might have. So we’re able to watch our customer base and — we realize we skew a bit more rural — between [AMC Networks] programming, they have very, very low viewership, outside of a few obviously popular [shows] on AMC.

But those particular channels are also available to our customers on a variety of other sources, like iTunes, Amazon, Netflix and so on.

One of the things that programmers have done is that they’ve devalued their programming content by making it available in many multiple outlets. So, when someone asks for price increases …

We just look at it. Our customers are not really saying “We want to pay more money,” they’re saying, “We want more flexibility in our programming, and we don’t want to pay more.”

And when you look at that from a timing perspective, that’s just a contract that we can change. And we believe that the product is actually devalued. Not that there’s not some good programs, but that they’ve been devalued, because you can get it in multiple ways. And customers are asking for more flexibility, or have more flexibility to get the programming. So it’s not quite the same as something that was exclusive.

So we look at it and say, “This is a good opportunity to make a good business judgment call.” And obviously there’s a price where an [AMC Networks] product makes sense. We just don’t think that’s where we are today.

First things first: Obviously it makes the most sense to dump all of this into the “posturing” bucket, and treat it accordingly. The easy money here is to bet that, yet again, Dish and AMC will strike a deal, which Ergen, at the end of his remarks, explicitly says is on the table.

That said, a couple of points:

  • Most of the big TV programmers seem to agree with Ergen’s point when it comes to free repeats of recent shows. Which is why they have been taking stuff that they’ve been giving away via outlets like Hulu, and either pulling them off the Web entirely, or requiring that customers “authenticate” — prove that they’re paying for cable or satellite TV —  in order to see them without delay. Note that Dish was the first pay-TV service to participate in the Fox authentication plan last summer. (Fox is owned by News Corp., as is this Web site.)
  • TV programmers don’t seem to think that iTunes’ and Amazon’s a la carte sales of shows that aired the night before are devaluing their product. Because they’re still selling them, and by all accounts there doesn’t seem to be a ton of volume for those episodes. If there was, advertisers would squawk long before pay-TV providers would.
  • The really touchy subject here is what happens to prior-season episodes of AMC hits like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” on Netflix. Netflix has been arguing that these episodes are big draws for its customers, and that this is good for networks like AMC, because people discover the old shows on Netflix and then watch the new ones as they air. There is some evidence for this, too.
  • But there is also evidence that Netflix repeats hurt some cable programming — like kids’ shows — too. And that leads to speculation that Viacom and Disney will pull back their shows from the service or raise prices when their contracts expire — even though Netflix is already paying big dollars for them. Netflix will have its hands on “Mad Men” and other AMC shows for at least a couple of years more. But it will be interesting to see what Dish’s complaint means for the renegotiations.

*There is also a wrinkle involving a lawsuit between Dish and a former AMC subsidiary, but that’s par for the course, too. All of these guys sue all of these guys, all the time. No recession, ever, for TV attorneys.


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There was a worry before I started this that I was going to burn every bridge I had. But I realize now that there are some bridges that are worth burning.

— Valleywag editor Sam Biddle