Happiness is a Warm TV

Disney warns that DirecTV customers could lose ESPN and ABC if AT&T contract expires

Are local viewers about to lose more TV channels over a contract dispute?

Barely two weeks after AT&T settled a nearly two-month carriage fee conflict that returned CBS17 to the Triangle’s U-verse and DirecTV customers, some of those same customers could be in danger of losing channels owned by The Walt Disney Company, which includes ESPN channels (like the ACC Network) and ABC owned-and-operated affiliates (like WTVD).

AT&T’s carrier contract with Disney doesn’t expire until the end of September, but Disney isn’t waiting to warn viewers that there could be a disruption in service.

The warnings — seen locally in crawls during TV shows on WTVD (ABC11), in commercials on WTVD and in short ads at the start of videos on the WTVD website — specifically mention DirecTV customers (DirecTV is owned by AT&T) but not AT&T U-verse customers.

An ad running at the start of a video on the WTVD website this week says: “DirecTV customers, don’t lose your shows: ABC11 Eyewitness News and college football on ABC11, ACC Network, Freeform and the Disney networks could all soon be gone. Call DirecTV now to keep the networks you’re paying for.”

A spokesperson for AT&T sent the following statement to The News & Observer on Wednesday:

“We’re disappointed to see The Walt Disney Co. put their Raleigh and Durham viewers into the middle of negotiations. We are on the side of consumer choice and value and want to keep WTVD-ABC and Disney’s national sports and entertainment channels in our Raleigh and Durham customers’ lineups. We hope to avoid any interruption to the services some of our customers care about.

Our goal is always to deliver the content our customers want at a value that also makes sense to them. We’ll continue to fight for that here and appreciate their patience while we work this matter out.”

The issue involves retransmission fees. Carriers like AT&T, Charter (which owns Spectrum) and DISH pay cable networks and TV station owners a monthly license fee to carry their signals.

An ABC spokesperson told The News & Observer on Thursday: “Our contract with AT&T for the ABC, ESPN, Disney, and Freeform networks is due to expire soon, so we have a responsibility to make our viewers aware of the potential loss of our programming. However, we remain fully committed to reaching a deal and are hopeful we can do so.”

But the early warnings could also be taken as an indication of how negotiations are going so far. AT&T is becoming known for protracted contract fights.

In addition to AT&T’s dispute with Nexstar, which owns the local CBS affiliate WNCN (CBS 17), AT&T also fought this summer with CBS-owned-and-operated affiliates, keeping CBS dark for approximately 6.5 million U-verse and DirecTV viewers across the country for almost three weeks.

In 2017, AT&T stopped carrying WRAL and Fox 50, both owned by Capitol Broadcasting, and the dispute lasted for almost three months before service was restored.

During both of this summer’s disputes, statements from officials at the National Association of Broadcasters argued that AT&T was purposely drawing out negotiations in an attempt to get the topic of retransmission fees back before Congress.

A legal notice from AT&T posted in newspapers last month lists the following channels as being among those affected in the case of an outage: the Disney Channel, Disney Jr., Disney XD, ESPN, ESPN Classic, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPNU, ESPN News, Freeform, SEC ESPN. (NOTE: The ACC Network, an ESPN network, is not listed in the notice, but AT&T has confirmed that the ACC Network will be affected.)

The notice also lists WTVD/ABC11 and 12 other ABC owned-and-operated affiliates that could go dark if the contract expires.

What could viewers miss if Disney goes?

Where to start.

As mentioned above, Disney not only owns all the Disney channels, but all of the ESPN channels and ABC.

Disney means the kids suffer. ESPN means the sports fans suffer. ABC means fans of the new Fall TV season suffer.

ESPN and ABC both have college and NFL games that would affected by an outage.

And yes, it does include the new ACC Network.

As for Fall TV, old favorites like “Dancing with the Stars,” “The Good Doctor,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Modern Family” will have returned by the end of September (the new season starts Sept. 23).

New ABC shows premiering in September include “Emergence,” “Stumptown” and “Mixed-ish.”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

Brooke Cain is a North Carolina native who has worked at The News & Observer for more than 20 years. She writes about TV and local media for the Happiness is a Warm TV blog, and answers CuriousNC questions for readers.