The Rise and Fall of ESPN’s Leverage

On December 12, 1975, RCA Corporation launched its Satcom I communications satellite; the primary purpose was to provide long-distance telephone service between Alaska and the continental U.S. RCA had hopes, though, that there might be new uses for its capacity; to that end the company had listed for sale a 24-hour transponder that covered the entire United States, only to discontinue the offering after failing to find a single buyer.

Three years later Bill Rasmussen, the communications manager for the Hartford Whalers, was let go from his job; he had the idea of doing the same coverage he did for the team, but independently, along with other Connecticut sports, leveraging the then-expanding cable access TV facilities in Connecticut. These facilities existed to capture broadcast signals from New York and Boston using large antennas and deliver them to people’s houses; the cables, though, had capacity to carry more channels at basically zero cost, including Rasmussen’s proposed Connecticut sports network.

It was in the course of canvasing Connecticut cable providers that Rasmussen was introduced to the concept of satellite communications, and Al Parinello, a manager at RCA. At first Rasmussen pitched his Connecticut sports network idea, and Parinello was confused: satellites covered the entire country, so why was Rasmussen only talking about a single state? Parinello told James Andrew Miller in Those Guys Have All The Fun:

I can still remember the conversation. Bill said, “Let me get this straight. You mean to tell me, for no extra money — for no extra money! — we could take this signal and beam it anywhere in the country?” And I said, “That’s right.” And then he asked again, “Anywhere in the country?” And I said, “Anywhere.” I remember we went back and forth like this a couple times. Bill and Scott were looking at each other, and they might have been getting sexually excited, I’m not sure. But I can tell that they were very, very excited.

It was in the course of that conversation that Parinello mentioned the unbought 24-hour transponders, which would let Rasmussen send a signal around the entire United States for less than it could cost him to buy access on those Connecticut cable companies; he bought it the next day, and only then set out to create what would become ESPN.

In other words, the very idea for ESPN sprung from:

  1. The fact that RCA had invested massive capital costs in the Satcom I satellite and thus:
  2. Was selling access to that satellite at a relatively low price, given that said access had zero marginal costs, which meant:
  3. Rasmussen could leverage that access to reach every home in America, or at least every cable operator, for an even lower price than it cost to reach only the state of Connecticut.

Massive fixed costs resulting in zero distribution costs and massive scalability on a platform that is inherently indifferent to the data it is distributing might sound familiar: it’s the same economic forces undergirding the Internet, and it speaks to those forces’ power that while they may have made ESPN in the first place, they threaten to destroy it in the long run.

ESPN and the Advent of Affiliate Fees

The first ESPN broadcast was a year later, on September 7, 1979; in the intervening time Rasmussen had made a deal with the NCAA, which oversaw a host of untelevised sports, to televise the early rounds of the men’s basketball tournament along with several other less popular sports. The other important deal was with Anheuser-Busch, which signed an advertising contract for $1.3 million. The idea was to convince cable distributors around the country to pick up the free ESPN signal, and to make up the cost with advertising; 1.4 million homes had access to that first broadcast.

In another foreshadowing of the Internet, ESPN soon realized that providing ongoing content monetized with nothing but advertising was good for growth but bad for actually making money; a year later the company reached 6 million homes and had a new deal with Anheuser-Busch that didn’t come close to covering its costs. Rasmussen was also out, as new management sought to rework its deal with the NCAA and, most importantly, the cable operators.

Then, in 1982, CBS Cable failed, leading Wall Street to question the whole business model; this didn’t affect ESPN, which was still mostly owned by Getty Oil, with ABC as a new investor and partner, but it did affect the cable companies, who saw their stocks plummet. The last thing they needed was for ESPN to go out of business too; Roger Werner, ESPN’s then CEO, told Miller:

We went to the market with this sort of survival pitch essentially as follows: If you come in voluntarily and do a new deal with us, we’ll start your rate at four cents in 1983 or ’84 and then we’ll go to six cents the next year, then eight cents. Either rip up the old contract and have some protection for whatever the term of your new affiliation agreement is going to be, or pay the prevailing rate when your old deal expires. There was the specter that if we were still around—and we intended to be around—we’d be a much more expensive service…

Essentially we were saying, guys, if you’re not interested in paying a fee and you’re really not interested in stepping up to the plate in the near term, tell us now and we’ll pull the plug. Nobody really wanted to deal with the idea that they were going to be paying for a product that had been free, but actually my recollection of this is that it was very stress-filled, it was very contentious.

It worked. Suddenly ESPN had two business models: advertising and a per-subscriber fee, whether or not they watched ESPN. Andy Brilliant, the then-general counsel told Miller:

At the end of the day, they blinked and agreed to pay us a dime per household. We breathed a massive sigh of relief. It was the first time we actually received validation that our service was worth something to the cable operators. I think that really put us on the map for good.

It also changed how ESPN thought about programming. Then-President of ESPN Bill Grimes told Miller:

This was, like, ’83; at that time we had boxing one night and skiing, tennis, and a whole bunch of other stuff on the schedule. We were talking one day about the fact that there was a lot of college basketball becoming available. I said, “You know, we could get basketball six nights a week. Our weekly ratings in prime would really go up.” But Roger [Werner] said, “That’s true, we could probably get a better rating. But they’re only numbers. We’re now in the business of subscriber fees. So what we want is as diverse programming as possible. Even if a program like skiing or auto racing gets a lower rating, there are people who will never watch a basketball game. So we should now think a little bit differently.” This was totally contrary to what I had grown up with in the business — rating, rating, rating. Get the highest ratings we can get. But Roger was right. We didn’t want all our ratings from one thing, because it’s only those hundred people who watch the skiing event that’ll yell like hell if the cable operators ever do decide to drop ESPN. His belief that sacrificing a little bit of ratings to have greater variety was going to create more rabid fans of ESPN was absolutely right.

Werner was right: ESPN could raise its affiliate fees, and cable operators that tried to drop them in protest were overrun with complaints, quickly adding the channel back. By 1986 ESPN was charging around 27 cents per subscriber, and then they signed a deal with the NFL, adding a 9 cent surcharge to their fees; cable operators could choose to not show the game (and avoid the surcharge), but within weeks nearly every cable operator realized their customers would not tolerate not having access to the NFL. George Bodenheimer, who would later become President of ESPN, told Miller this anecdote about the surcharge:

We set a deadline and we told everybody there was a benefit to committing to us then, but those who didn’t sign by midnight of the deadline date would pay a higher price. I remember pleading with one particular cable operator who was my account who said he wasn’t going to agree to sign on. His name was Leonard Tow.

Tow was in the process of building what is now known as Frontier Communications; Grimes picked up the story:

Leonard comes in, and you know what the first thing he says about the deal was? “We can’t afford to do this.” I said, “People not seeing the games aren’t going to like it.” Leonard said, “I know football’s popular, but we’re already paying you guys a subscriber fee. We’ll just put on some other local programming the night of the game.” I reminded him that if he changed his mind after tomorrow, he would have to pay a 20 percent incremental fee, a premium, but he just kept saying nope. On the way out I said, “Leonard, look, we’re really successful now and we’re going to be more successful in the future. It would be awful not having you a part of this, but I really believe you’re going to wind up changing your mind. Just wait until people find out you won’t have the games.” He disagreed and we said good-bye. One week later, he called and signed on. And, oh yeah, he paid the extra 20 percent.

ESPN paid $153 million over three years for those NFL rights; the first broadcast reached 45 million homes, earning the network an incremental $4.05 million/month, just about enough to cover the NFL rights. What was more important is that the NFL attracted new subscribers which paid ESPN’s full fees, which amounted to over $12 million a month. Moreover, ESPN also got rights from the NFL for unlimited access to highlights: that fueled studio shows like NFL Primetime and SportsCenter that cost very little to produce, yet both attracted large audiences (for advertising), and made the NFL and other sports even more popular. The flywheel was fully engaged.

Charter vs. Disney

Over the last decade the story of ESPN specifically, Disney more broadly, and cable as a whole has been the slow but steady disintegration of that flywheel, culminating in the current standoff between Charter and Disney. From the Wall Street Journal:

Charter Communications subscribers are caught in the middle of a philosophical fight between the cable giant and Disney, parent company of ESPN, ABC and several other networks. Disney-owned networks on Thursday went dark for customers of Charter’s Spectrum cable systems, which has nearly 15 million video subscribers across the country including the New York and Los Angeles markets. As a result, sports fans who are Charter subscribers are losing access to college football and the U.S. Open. And the National Football League season is about to begin: ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” starts Sept. 11. Other channels no longer available to Charter include ABC-owned TV stations and cable networks FX, Disney Channel, Freeform and National Geographic.

Channels going dark in the midst of an affiliate fee dispute aren’t new: indeed, they were how ESPN managed to extract per-subscriber fees in the first place. And, for 40 years, ESPN usually won, including a standoff with YouTube TV in late 2021; I wrote at the time in an Update:

It appears that Disney decisively won its stand-off with Google; YouTube TV dropped Disney channels for about two days, only to come to an agreement that Disney characterized as “fair terms that are consistent with the market”; this strongly suggests that Google saw sufficient cancellations in that two-day window that it caved on its demands to get a lower rate. This further reaffirms just how powerful the ESPN bundle is (and Disney’s bundle generally).

When Disney went dark on Charter last week, I initially assumed a similar outcome; then came the Charter investor call the next morning, and this slide:

Charter's investor slide about video

The most important sentence is in the light blue box on the far right: “The video product is no longer a key driver of financial performance.” This is the culmination of a 25-year shift in business model for the cable companies: those initial investments in wires in the ground to provide small communities access to big city TV broadcasts turned out to be very well suited to providing broadband Internet access. Remember the lesson of RCA and ESPN’s founding: the digital transmission of information is inherently indifferent to the data being distributed. In the case of cable the initial use case was digital TV signals, but the exact same cable could also carry packets running the TCP/IP protocol.1

Of course for a long time it was very profitable to carry both, along with voice: cable companies offered “triple play” bundles that included TV, Internet, and telephony. Over time the telephony part dropped off, as people used mobile phones exclusively; cable carriers have since moved into the mobile carrier space as well, fueled by profits from TV and broadband Internet. What made the Internet part the most valuable, though, is that the cable companies didn’t need to pay for content: everything was just a packet.

That, though, was also the problem: some of those packets reformed themselves as Netflix video streams, which ate into time spent watching TV. Worse, Netflix’s stock was rising and rising as it acquired ever more customers, much to the chagrin of Hollywood, which felt entitled to those multiples given they were the ones producing the most compelling content. That resulted in the fateful decision to start their own streaming services, impoverishing the TV bundle; Charter’s investor presentation included “The Impoverishment Cycle” created by MoffettNathanson:

"The Impoverishment Cycle" from MoffettNathanson, via Charter

What Disney and all of the rest forgot was the lesson first imparted by Werner at the dawn of affiliate fees: retaining customers means offering content for everyone; in the case of the cable bundle, that meant having compelling programming above-and-beyond sports.

The second lesson Disney forgot was why that NFL deal made sense for ESPN at the time, even though the surcharge ESPN charged cable providers was only projected to barely cover the deal: high end sports deals drove customer demand, but the real money was made on (1) everyone who didn’t care about football and (2) cheap content like SportsCenter. The latter, though, has also been impoverished by the Internet; I noted last year when the Big Ten signed a TV deal that excluded ESPN:

The Big Ten’s exclusion of ESPN really highlights the degree to which social media has supplanted ESPN’s previous tentpole shows like SportsCenter; ESPN used to get discounts on rights deals because to be excluded from SportsCenter meant publicity death. That’s no longer the case.

The former, meanwhile, is a reminder that while ESPN has generally made money from rights deals, particularly for smaller sports that filled the schedule and inspired niche fans to badger the cable companies, the biggest properties — particularly the NFL — have always been cognizant of their worth and willing to extract their full value. Disney, in turn, can only maintain ESPN profitability by passing on those rights fees to cable distributors, who must in turn pass them on to their customers.

The third lesson Disney has forgotten is the most counter-intuitive takeaway of this battle: the worst thing that has happened to the company’s negotiating position is that ESPN is already available on the Internet.

The Phases of Cable TV

The cable TV industry has gone through four distinct phases in terms of competition:

Phase 1: Non-Consumption

The first phase was the time in ESPN’s history I detailed above: burgeoning cable TV services were running cables to every home in America and trying to convince customers to sign-up. In this case their competition was non-consumption: a lot of people didn’t have cable, and the cable companies wanted them to sign up for service. ESPN was a particularly unique asset in this regard thanks to its provision of sports content that wasn’t available elsewhere — indeed, until the NFL deal, most of the content had never been available at all. This certainly led to some bruising fights between ESPN and the cable companies over affiliate fees, but it’s always easier to come to an agreement when the pie is growing.

Phase 2: Satellite

The second phase was the 90s emergence of DirecTV and Dish Network, which offered the same channels as cable TV but via a small satellite dish you could mount on your roof or porch. This was a more involved installation process, but ultimately cheaper thanks to the fact that DirecTV and Dish didn’t need to put an actual cable in the ground. This was also good news for ESPN because now there was an alternative to traditional cable TV: if a cable provider didn’t want to accept higher affiliate fees then ESPN could withhold service, trusting its viewers would punish the cable provider by moving to satellite (which means they would probably be gone forever).

Phase 3: IPTV

By the 2000s the satellite threat to cable was fading because satellite was TV only: if a customer had both Internet and TV via their cable provider than it was much harder to switch. Remember, though, that it’s all data in the end; thus the 2000s saw the rise of IPTV offerings from traditional telecom providers like AT&T and Verizon. They too saw salvation for their own fading telephony business in providing broadband Internet, but providing a competitive offering to cable meant offering TV as well. And, thanks to the Internet, they could simply provide said TV using the TCP/IP protocol.

The decade that followed was probably the time of maximum ESPN leverage: it was easier for customers to switch from the cable bundle to the telecom bundle than it was to install an extra satellite dish; it’s no surprise that this was the decade when ESPN’s aggressiveness in terms of both acquiring sports rights and in raising affiliate fees increased; it was also the peak of ESPN’s relative share of Disney profits.

Phase 4: vMVPDs

The virtual multichannel video programming distributor (vMVPD) era kicked off in 2015 with the launch of Sling TV. This took the IPTV trend in Phase 3 to its logical endpoint: instead of needing a box to display IPTV signals, you could simply use an app. vMVPD’s have had a big impact on the landscape in two ways: first, they significantly diminished the cord-cutting trend for years as they both captured cord-cutters and also non-consumers, and second, they decimated regional sports networks that had long increased affiliate fees even more aggressively than ESPN. I wrote in What the NBA Can Learn From Formula 1:

There just aren’t that many SuperFans of a single team, yet regional networks cost more than anything outside of ESPN — more in some markets. This worked in a world where everyone got cable by default, but remember that cable is losing far more customers than pay-TV as a whole, thanks to the rise of the aforementioned virtual pay-TV providers. Virtual pay-TV providers don’t have a customer base to defend, or infrastructure costs to leverage: they distribute via the Internet that people already pay for. To that end, they don’t have to carry everything, and regional sports networks were the most obvious thing to drop: this lets virtual pay-TV providers have a lower price than cable by virtue of excluding content that most people don’t want.

Still, this didn’t seem to affect ESPN, as exemplified by the fact they appear to have won their negotiation with YouTube TV in 2021. In fact, though, this dispute with Charter is showing why ESPN may be a loser as well. Go back to the issue of cable customer churn in response to ESPN’s lack of availability; here’s how it manifested in each phase:

  • In Phase 1, a churned customer meant less leverage on expensive buildouts, and pressure from Wall Street.
  • In Phase 2, a churned customer went to the effort of getting satellite and probably never came back.
  • In Phase 3, a churned customer would not just change their TV provider, but also their broadband provider, and remember that broadband was becoming the cable companies’ biggest business.

In Phase 4, though, a churned TV customer is still a broadband customer, because the Internet is a precondition for watching the vMVPD! Sure, a customer could be so incensed that they also change their Internet provider, but that is completely unnecessary and, given the inconvenience involved, highly unlikely.

That means that ESPN, for the first time in its history, has no leverage over the cable companies. Indeed, MoffettNathanson reported that Charter is actively helping customers move to vMVPDs:

For Charter, the uncomfortable truth is that it just doesn’t matter all that much. Yes, they probably do still make some money on video. But not much, and they recognize that linear video is going to be a rapidly declining line of service under even the most optimistic scenarios, so the issue is arguably nothing more than when, not if, video goes away. Charter has already established a referral capability for customers to switch them to YouTube TV or FuboTV (predictably, they haven’t mentioned referring customers to Sling TV or DirecIV Now, and they presumably wouldn’t steer anyone to Hulu Live if the trigger was a dispute with Disney).

Notably, the first NFL Monday Night Football game (ESPN) features two Spectrum-market teams; the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills. To handle a potential rush of customers anxious about missing the game, Charter is preparing a one-touch QR code that would not only create a new YouTube TV or Fubo subscription, but would also downgrade from a Spectrum video bundle with a single click…Disney may learn the hard way that it’s tough to win a negotiation with a counterparty that has nothing to lose.

This truth may be uncomfortable for Charter; it ought to be sobering for Disney, particularly since the company, along with the rest of Hollywood, was the one responsible for destroying the value of TV to companies like Charter who were built on it.

The Case for Re-Bundling

Once-and-current Disney CEO Bob Iger has been talking a lot recently about ESPN’s inevitable shift to going over-the-top, including stating that he has a particular date in mind; this showdown with Charter and the revelation of ESPN’s dramatic diminishment in its negotiating position is a reminder that declining businesses often don’t have the luxury of dictating their future.

So what does that future look like?

First, it’s very possible — perhaps even likely — that Charter and Disney come to an agreement. As the MoffettNathanson note observes, Charter probably still is making some money on video, and it is also both a customer acquisition tool and churn mitigation factor for their broadband business, and a part of the modern triple play bundle (with mobile). Disney, meanwhile, along with all of the other Hollywood studios, still needs the substantial amount of cash that they receive from cable TV providers (this is particularly pressing for Disney given that they still have to pay for sports rights). Yes, they also earn money from vMVPDs like YouTube TV, but not every customer will seamlessly transition.

To that end, the company that ought to give here is Disney: according to that Wall Street Journal article Charter is willing to accept the reported $1.50 increase in affiliate fees Disney is demanding if they receive the right to bundle the ad-supported versions of Disney+. Charter argues that it is only right that Disney re-add its most valuable entertainment content to the pay-TV bundle, and frankly, I think they have a point.

More importantly for Disney, though, is that cable TV providers like Charter remain potent go-to-market entities — decades of servicing customers in their homes has meant a massive build-up in everything from stores to local sales to customer support — and that could be very helpful as Disney seeks to acquire more marginal customers. More importantly, though, I think it is in the long-term interest of the streaming services to be part of a bundle. I wrote last year in Cable’s Last Laugh:

The cable companies are better suited than almost anyone else to rebundle for real. Imagine a “streaming bundle” that includes Netflix, HBO Max, Disney+, Paramount+, Peacock, etc., available for a price that is less than the sum of its parts…Owning the customer may be less important than simply having more customers, particularly if those customers are much less likely to churn. After all, that’s one of the advantages of a bundle: instead of your streaming service needing to produce compelling content every single month, you can work as a team to keep customers on board with the bundle.

What Charter is proposing is a bit different — they want to bundle traditional TV with streaming services — and I get why Disney is resistant: there are a lot of people paying for both traditional TV and Disney+ (and Hulu and ESPN+); giving Charter bundling rights would cannibalize some amount of revenue. Moreover, it would also mean the end of whatever grand plans Disney might have about offering its own bundle, or cutting out the cable companies’ margin once-and-for-all. At some point, though, Disney and everyone else in Hollywood has to wake up to reality; I wrote in Hollywood on Strike:

The broader issue is that the video industry finally seems to be facing what happened to the print and music industry before them: the Internet comes bearing gifts like infinite capacity and free distribution, but those gifts are a poisoned chalice for industries predicated on scarcity. When anyone could publish text, most text-based businesses went from massive profitability to terminal decline; when anyone could distribute music the music industry could only be saved by tech companies like Spotify helping them sell convenience in place of plastic discs.

For the video industry the first step to survival must be to retreat to what they are good at — producing content that isn’t available anywhere else — and getting away from what they are not, i.e. running undifferentiated streaming services with massive direct costs and even larger opportunity ones. Talent, meanwhile, has to realize that they and the studios are not divided by this new paradigm, but jointly threatened: the Internet is bad news for content producers with outsized costs, and long-term sustainability will be that much harder to achieve if the focus is on increasing them.

Re-bundling is better for everyone; it’s Disney’s fault that the entities best-placed to pull that off no longer need it.

Second, for all of the talk about ESPN, it’s worth noting that its content is still valuable — that’s the entire reason this dispute is a big deal. Will anyone care if Charter stops carrying channels from anyone else in Hollywood? And yet, all of those studios are just as dependent on cable TV cashflow, even as many of them have “cheated” to a much greater extent than Disney: Peacock, for example, carries most of NBC’s sports programming, including football, and even put some of the most attractive Olympics programming exclusively on the streaming service. Why on earth should Charter or any other cable provider pay for NBCUniversal channels? Or, more pertinently, if ESPN isn’t available, why would any of the dwindling number of subscribers stay?

The biggest long-term question, though, has to be around sports itself. Sports leagues could extract ever higher rights fees from ESPN because ESPN could extract ever higher affiliate fees from cable TV providers; if the latter is broken than the former is as well. Yes, vMVPDs like YouTube TV will still exist — and be big winners — and Disney still plans an ESPN streaming service. All of those options, though, entail dramatically increased customer choice; leagues like the NBA have shrugged off declining ratings with the certainty that they would, via cable TV subscribers, get paid regardless, but now the choice isn’t just whether to click the remote, but whether to simply click cancel and watch something else. Better to re-bundle sooner rather than later!

  1. Yes, I know I just said “protocol” twice