19 September 2023

One Good Reason Disney Sacrificed Freeform in its New Charter Deal

Disney may have sacrificed carriage of Freeform (nee ABC Family, Fox Family, The Family Channel, CBN, Christian Broadcasting Network) in part because it was easier to give up carriage of a linear channel which had an "ironclad" obligation to carry The 700 Club, the conservative evangelical Christian talk show for 2 hours every day (currently 11PM and 9AM ET).

In the recent past, "shelf space" for fully distributed basic cable TV channels was perhaps the most valuable asset in the media. Basic cable networks with inexpensive programming like MTV, could run at greater than 50% margins. Cable cord cutting has reduced those margins, in some cases pretty dramatically. Programming companies, like Disney, have been prioritizing entertainment investments in growing on-demand services like Disney+ and Hulu over the declining "linear" TV business of 24 hour scheduled channels. Disney CEO Bob Iger has discussed its options for the linear services in a recent interview on CNBC; they "might not be core to Disney".

The Disney-Charter deal, which saw the inclusion of Disney+ and ESPN+ in Charter's Spectrum "cable TV" packages, despite the fact that they had not, to date, been considered cable TV services. The services clearly have some attractive programming. Charter had asked for it to be included in its deal for free for Charter customers; the announcement of the deal made it clear that Charter is paying a "wholesale" rate for them. Depending on what that rate is, the inclusion of these services in Spectrum's cable video packages could represent a lot of value to Charter or a lot of value to Disney. Most likely, it is a little bit of both.

What is clear is that the Disney linear services that were carried by Spectrum systems in its expired deal, but not in the new one (Baby TV, Disney Junior, Disney XD, Freeform, FXM, FXX, Nat Geo Wild, and Nat Geo Mundo), were no longer growing assets for Disney nor highly valued by Spectrum. 

Cable operators have been pruning their cable lineups to control the cost of their video service which have looked expensive and bloated next to the much cheaper streaming services over the last decade. It was very clear that the streaming services were also getting more and more of the high profile new original programming, because the programming companies had been rewarded by the stock market for the growth of their streaming services, despite the fact that these services were all highly unprofitable.

Whether these straight-line trends towards streaming and away from cable video will continue now that the fast growth of streaming has ended, investment in streaming programming is being cut back, and streaming retail prices are going up sharply, is less clear.

I believe consumers' move from cable to streaming was much more about the relative value they offered than the "inevitability" of the newer technology.

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