The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

YouTube TV to restore ABC, ESPN and other channels after making deal with Disney

(Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg News)
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All Disney-owned content, including ABC and ESPN, went dark on YouTube TV late Friday after a breakdown in distribution negotiations between Disney and Google. On Sunday, YouTube TV said it was flipping the lights back on.

The financial dispute between the media giants over carriage fees led to the first major blackout for Google-owned YouTube TV, which has more than 3 million subscribers and is one of the nation’s largest Internet pay-TV services. Disney and Google, whose parent company is Alphabet, had been unable to reach a new deal by 11:59 p.m. Eastern time Friday.

Content affected by the lapse included ABC-owned TV stations, ESPN networks and Disney channels. Freeform, the FX networks and National Geographic channels also had been removed.

The next day, they announced a deal, with Disney Media saying it was “pleased” to have kept the disruption short.

“We appreciate Google’s collaboration to reach fair terms that are consistent with the market,” Disney said in a statement.

YouTube TV tweeted that it had “already started to restore access to channels like ESPN and FX, and Disney recordings that were previously in your Library. Your local ABC station will also be turning on throughout the day.”

It had said that it would cut its monthly subscription rate by $15 while Disney content was off the air, going from $64.99 to $49.99. On Sunday, YouTube TV said all affected users “will still receive a one-time $15 discount.”

A Disney spokesperson told The Washington Post on Saturday that Google was to blame for costing subscribers “access to our unrivaled portfolio of networks including live sports and news.”

YouTube TV said in a blog post last week that Disney had demanded higher fees for its TV networks than “services of a similar size pay.”

The brief halt in service was the latest wrinkle in the streaming wars among media titans buying and stockpiling content — a multibillion-dollar race to keep customers tuned in to their platform for the long haul.

The impasse threatened to deal a significant blow to YouTube TV’s live sports offerings, including ESPN’s package of NBA, NHL and NCAA broadcasts and the NFL’s “Monday Night Football.” College football’s bowl season, much of which is broadcast on ESPN, is underway.

YouTube TV surpassed 3 million subscribers as of late 2020, according to Alphabet. Some financial analysts believe the subscription number has since eclipsed 4 million, which would make it the largest Internet-delivered TV bundle.

It’s not the first time this year that Google has had a standoff with a media company over distribution. In the fall, Google’s deal with NBCUniversal’s cable networks and local NBC stations was set to expire. The companies were able to reach a new agreement quickly. A similar disagreement with Roku over distribution terms for YouTube and YouTube TV apps was resolved this month.

Similar disputes have arisen between content providers and cable TV service companies, resulting in channels being pulled. Those disputes normally clear up within days.

Disney is a major player in the lucrative world of live sports streaming. One of YouTube TV’s direct competitors, and perhaps its most serious, is Hulu Plus Live TV, which is controlled and majority-owned by Disney. Hulu had 4 million live TV subscribers as of September, according to Variety.

When the deal lapsed at midnight Friday, YouTube TV subscribers watching the Friday night NBA game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Minnesota Timberwolves were surprised and confused as to why the broadcast had gone black in the middle of the game. Other cord-cutters were frustrated that they had to scramble to sign up for a new service to watch the dozens of college football bowl games in the coming weeks.

“I had no idea this many people used YouTube TV to watch sports,” tweeted Jessica Smetana, a sports media personality with Meadowlark Media and “The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz.” “As a public service I will live tweet every bowl game today to ease your pain and suffering. … I would be livid if I couldn’t watch the bowl games today.”

Many agreed that the timing of the lapsed deal could not be worse for sports fans.

“The only reason people buy a streaming service like yours after cord cutting is for sports,” tweeted writer David Gardner. “Stop emailing me and just get the bowl games back.”

On Sunday, that plan was in motion.

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