One of the biggest cable companies in the United States has a message for media companies, its major partners in a decades-old business: The traditional cable-TV model is broken, and it needs to be fixed or abandoned.
Cable TV has become too expensive for consumers and providers, Charter Communications said in an 11-page presentation to investors on Friday, adding that cord-cutters and rising fees are contributing to a “vicious video cycle.”
The presentation comes amid negotiations between Charter and the Walt Disney Company, owner of popular cable channels including ESPN and FX, which will not be available to Charter’s nearly 15 million pay-TV subscribers until both sides agree on how much Charter will pay Disney to carry its channels. Subscribers to Charter’s Spectrum TV service will be without access to the U.S. Open tennis tournament and college football games during a holiday weekend.
These so-called carriage fights are commonplace in the media industry, with channels going dark for days or weeks on cable systems while the two sides — cable providers and content creators — haggle over how much the channels are worth and how to bundle them. But Charter’s suggestion that parts of its own business model are in disrepair adds a new wrinkle to the crisis facing the cable-TV business.
The fight comes at a time of declining subscriptions: More than five million Americans end their cable-TV subscriptions annually, according to research from SVB MoffettNathanson.
Almost every traditional media company is trying to hold on to its cash-rich cable partnerships while building streaming businesses that will eventually replace those alliances. But investors in traditional media companies have also grown impatient with attempts to build new streaming businesses, saying they are not as profitable as cable TV used to be.
The pressure is forcing traditional media companies to wring cash from their businesses in other ways, including teaming up with competitors to bundle their streaming services.
Adding to the challenges, tech companies like Apple and Amazon are willing to pay top dollar to acquire live sports rights, further driving up programming costs. Cable companies, for their part, have weaned themselves off depending wholly on traditional TV revenue, by offering services like wireless internet.
But in trying to negotiate with Disney for a better deal, Charter’s presentation goes a step further, delivering a scathing indictment of the cable television industry, which has generated billions of dollars for companies like itself and Disney for decades. It’s a notable acknowledgment from Charter, one of the companies that propelled much of that growth.
“Customers are leaving the traditional video ecosystem, and losses have accelerated,” according to Charter’s presentation.
“Has the traditional TV ecosystem reached its proverbial tipping point?” said Richard Greenfield, a media analyst for LightShed Partners. “If ESPN is permanently gone from Charter, there will be a massive snowball effect that is catastrophic for traditional TV companies.”
Disney fired back at Charter on Friday, saying that the cable giant had rejected a deal that reflected “market-based terms” and that Disney had proposed creative ways to make its streaming apps available to Charter’s cable subscribers. Disney said its offer to Charter had included its “most favorable terms” on rates, distribution, packaging and advertising.
“Charter’s actions are a disservice to consumers ahead of the kickoff for the college football season on ABC and ESPN’s networks,” Disney said in its statement.
At issue are the rates Charter will pay for Disney’s programming and how those movies and shows will be distributed to Charter’s customers in bundles. Charter has said it does not want to pay a premium for channels its customers do not watch, adding that rate increases are pushing customers to cut the cable cord.
Christopher Winfrey, the chief executive of Charter, said on an investor call Friday that he was “disappointed” with the stalemate with Disney. He said the company had proposed an alternative model that Disney would not accept.
“We’re either moving forward with a new collaborative video model, or we’re moving on,” Mr. Winfrey said.
Charter’s news conference prompted a sell-off of traditional media stocks, affecting the broader entertainment industry. Shares of Disney were down nearly 3 percent on Friday, Paramount declined more than 9 percent, and Warner Bros. Discovery fell 12 percent. Charter shares were down more than 3 percent.
As viewers abandon cable television for streaming services like Netflix, cable providers like Charter and Comcast have grown frustrated with paying a premium for content that fewer people are watching through traditional means.
Content providers like Disney are making adjustments of their own. The media giant has said it plans to offer a streaming version of ESPN, one of its most valuable TV channels, which has long been a linchpin of the traditional cable bundle. Robert Iger, Disney’s chief executive, has said he is exploring options for ESPN, including finding a new partner for distribution or content.
On Friday, Charter said it had proposed a subscription package that included both traditional television and streaming apps, but Disney rejected its terms, said Rich DiGeronimo, president of product and technology. Charter said it was prepared to walk away from Disney’s channels, instead adopting “alternate video solutions” that included services offered by Apple and Roku.
Charter has explored splitting off some sports programming, including regional sports networks, into a higher-cost package called Spectrum Select Plus. Mr. Winfrey said Friday that it had not pushed Disney to agree to put ESPN into that package.
Benjamin Mullin is a media reporter for The Times, covering the major companies behind news and entertainment. More about Benjamin Mullin
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