LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Viacom and DirecTV fought a bruising fight over fees to a draw Friday and agreed to a long-term deal that ended a 10-day channel blackout.
Their new deal restored MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and other channels to 20 million DirecTV customers and ensured those channels will be available to subscribers on computers and mobile devices in the coming months.
Fans on Twitter expressed relief.
According to terms shared by both sides on Friday, DirecTV Group Inc. will pay about 20 per cent more to carry Viacom Inc. channels on satellite TV lineups. That works out to about US$600 million in the first year of a seven-year deal. The companies agreed to annual single-digit percentage increases in subsequent years.
DirecTV was able to save itself about $500 million over the entire term by not taking the premium pay TV channel Epix. It said it also was able to send a message that it won’t roll over every time a media company threatens to pull channels over fees.
“They realized we were not going to capitulate,” said Derek Chang, DirecTV’s executive vice-president of content strategy.
Investors met the outcome with a ho-hum as the deal was largely in line with expectations.
Shares of both companies edged downward Friday in a declining market. Since the dispute resulted in a blackout the evening of July 10, Viacom shares are down 0.9 per cent, closing Friday at $46.41, while DirecTV shares are down 0.7 per cent, closing at $48.33. Over the same period, the Dow Jones industrial average rose 1.3 per cent.
“I’m not going to engage on who was the winner and who was the loser,” said Todd Juenger, an analyst with Bernstein Research. “What we’ve learned is the fair value of Viacom services, fully tested and vetted in a real marketplace negotiation.”
By eking out a large fee increase, Viacom said DirecTV is now paying a rate that is more in line with that of other distributors.
DirecTV’s Chang even acknowledged that it had been paying significantly less than competitors for Viacom channels because the deal that just expired had been locked in seven years ago.
Viacom had argued that its networks account for 20 per cent of what DirecTV subscribers are watching but cost DirecTV just 5 per cent of its overall programming expense. Under the new deal, the Viacom fees will come out to 6 per cent.
“It was important to get fair value for our networks,” Viacom spokesman Carl Folta said. “We are still one of the most efficient programmers in their bouquet.”
By refusing to add Epix to its premium pay TV channel stable, DirecTV was able to save itself a big fixed cost over its entire subscriber base, as the flat fee would have been charged no matter how many subscribers choose to pay more for Epix, a movie channel that is half owned by Viacom.
Media companies typically try to sell rights to their channels as a package, so that fledgling channels are bundled with those already in high demand. Adding Epix to DirecTV would have been a big win for Viacom, as it’s now carried by only a handful of distributors, including rival satellite TV provider Dish Network Corp. But that was seen as unlikely, partly because Epix movies are available to Netflix subscribers 90 days after debuting on TV and the channel might have been hard to sell to customers.
The damage from the blackout to both sides was real but not permanent.
DirecTV spokesman Darris Gringeri said the company lost subscribers because of the dispute, “but against our subscriber base, it was not a significant number.”
Viacom lost out on 10 days’ worth of fees from DirecTV — roughly $14 million — and took a short-term audience hit that will cost the company advertising revenue.
Both sides suffered brand damage — Viacom because it was tagged for being a root cause of rising monthly TV bills, and DirecTV for not giving subscribers what they paid for. Even Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart slammed network parent Viacom for acting like China in pulling some shows from the Internet as part of the dispute, hurting people who weren’t DirecTV subscribers.
But the fight was short enough to forget about and move on. Plenty of disputes have lasted just a heartbeat — like ABC’s 15-minute blackout of the Oscars to Cablevision subscribers in March 2010. Others have dragged on for months.
“It was fortunate they were able to resolve it before the back and forth got any worse than it did,” Barclays analyst Anthony DiClemente said.
DiClemente said the relatively quick resolution boded well for an end to AMC Networks Inc.’s continuing dispute with Dish, which has gone on since July 1.