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If you are a YouTube TV user and like Sunday night football, chances are good that you’ve spent the last few days wondering if you’ll be able to stream this weekend’s games.
If you’re not the type to follow business negotiations between multinational companies (why would you be? I only follow them because it’s literally my job), here’s a primer: Earlier this week it emerged that the contract YouTube TV had to offer more than 14 channels from NBCUniversal – NBC, Telemundo, MSNBC, Golf, etc. – was due to expire on Thursday. Negotiations were reportedly in a stalemate, and if companies could not reach an agreement, all of these NBCU channels would disappear from YouTube TV streams. It looked like NBCU wanted YouTube parent company Google to bundle its own streaming service, Peacock, with YouTube TV. The streaming service, meanwhile, wanted “the same prices that services of a similar size get from NBCU so we can continue to offer YouTube TV to members at a reasonable price,” according to a blog post. On Thursday, the companies accepted a “short” extension to keep the NBCU channels on YouTube TV.
Whatever the outcome of this vacuuming, it was a prediction of the fact that navigating the streaming wars doesn’t really feel that different than navigating cable. Or, as our colleagues at Ars Technica put it, “The dispute is a reminder that the bundling common to cable and satellite TV may not be eliminated by the advent of streaming services.” Streaming was supposed to help users cut the cord; more and more it seems like it’s just out to replace the rope.
Yes, we at WIRED have said some version of this before. Earlier this year, I argued that as media companies consolidated, consumers would eventually end up with another Big Three – that CBS, ABC and NBC would eventually lose territory to e.g. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney +. It still seems reasonably likely. But the new battlefield, YouTube TV and NBCU fracas opening up is one centered on carriers. The whole promise of streaming was that content providers could go directly to the consumer. Do you want everything Disney has? Get Disney +. Do you love nature shows and home productions? Get Discovery +. But now there are so many services that viewers and businesses are desperate to find ways to combine them in the language of the industry – something that can feel like deja vu to anyone who has ever tried to make the tough decisions involved in to choose between basic or premium cable packages.
Take Hulu, for example. The service has been something of a stalwart in the streaming game for a while now. But people forget that it started as an effort by the parent companies of NBC, ABC and Fox to offer these channels on a Netflix-like service. It was meant to be a way for older networks to get into the streaming action. In 2019, after Disney closed its $ 71 billion acquisition of Fox, it took control of Hulu in a separate event with NBCUniversal’s parent company Comcast. Now consumers can get Hulu in a bundle with Disney + and ESPN +, as ESPN is of course also a Disney property. There is also now FX on Hulu, which gives Hulu subscribers access to a lot of premium Fox content. A Disney channel, ESPN and FX? If it does not feel like one of the previous cable packages, do nothing.
However, this is where things get hairy. As part of Disney’s agreement to control Hulu, Comcast agreed to continue licensing NBCUniversal content to Hulu until 2024, but NBCU retained the rights to withdraw some of its programs that were exclusively licensed to Hulu. With the launch of Peacock last year, it was assumed that NBCU would eventually have much of its programming of this service to strengthen its appeal to consumers.