The most recent cable company/broadcaster stand-off (out of too many to list) has been Spectrum versus Disney. Once again, it was over the usual reasons: two massive companies disputing how much should be paid for cable channels carried; ESPN (and sports) a major aspect of said dispute and how it was resolved (just before “Monday Night Football” debuted); a bunch of Disney-owned channels temporarily yanked; etc.
However, this time, how things were resolved differed. As part of restoring ESPN and other Disney-owned channels to Spectrum, Spectrum will offer Spectrum TV Select customers the free ad-supported version of Disney+. Select Plus customers (a sports-related subscription tier) will also get ESPN+ and a stand-alone streaming version of ESPN-proper, if/when that launches.
In exchange, Spectrum is permanently dropping eight Disney-owned cable channels: Baby TV, Disney Junior, Disney XD, Freeform, FXM, FXX, Nat Geo Wild, and Nat Geo Mundo (a Spanish language version of National Geographic). Since Spectrum is the United States’ second-biggest cable TV provider (after Comcast), this has a major impact on those channels, and draws their long-term future into question. Meanwhile, Disney+ (and the ads on the tier being offered) will likely get a boost in viewers.
Below I give my thoughts on all this, as well as the several animation-related channels ditched. On a personal note, I’m not a Spectrum customer, but I was once a customer of Time Warner Cable, which was absorbed into Spectrum in 2016.
My main two observations are: A) traditional cable TV is still in a state of decline, and B) this is still a surprising treatment for a few longtime mainstay cable channels, particularly Freeform.
For point “A,” while streaming has its own problems, I don’t see a mass return to cable TV at this point. (Unless you want to pay for things like “high definition TV fees,” something my cable company actually charged.) Traditional cable TV at this point is mostly for: sports fans (especially those who want local game coverage); cable news fans; and those that need over-the-air local TV but can’t or won’t get it through other means (a TV antenna, etc.). The last reason, of course, is why cable TV was invented in the first place.
The fact that sports and local TV stations are the main reasons for these constant high-profile cable company-vs-broadcaster conflicts (and channel droppings) says it all. If someone just has cable for “90 Day Fiance,” “The Loud House,” or “Law & Order,” those can be watched via streaming/broadcast TV/DVDs for way less.
For point “B,” this is a surprising treatment of some longtime mainstay channels, albeit most of them secondary ones. Freeform is the most surprising out of these, as it’s been on the air (in various forms) the longest: since 1977, two years longer than ESPN. Unlike the other channels dropped, Freeform stands out as having a clear programming purpose, similar to Disney Channel (which isn’t going anywhere).
Originally a religious broadcaster dubbed “CBN” and later “The Family Channel” (no relation to Canada’s Family network), it was sold to Fox in 1997 and became “Fox Family.” In 2001, the channel was sold to Disney and became “ABC Family,” with a rebranding to “Freeform” coming in 2016. As part of the original CBN owners’ sale stipulations, Freeform is stuck airing the far-right religious fundamentalist newsmagazine “The 700 Club,” though it’s mostly buried in late night hours and with heavy disclaimers before/after the show.
Still, Freeform losing Spectrum doesn’t look good for the channel’s long-term future. Before the Spectrum/Disney fight, Spectrum accounted for 20% of Disney’s linear TV reach, according to IndieWire. Spectrum customers who want to watch Freeform’s originals will now have to subscribe to Hulu to do so.
Disney Junior has been a stand-alone channel since 2012, as a spin-off of the same-named preschooler block on Disney Channel. It’s even recently outranked Disney Channel proper in certain ratings measurements.
That said, Disney Junior’s most popular shows, such as “Bluey,” are also among the most popular shows on Disney+. “Bluey” and other Disney Junior shows often outrank even the much-hyped Disney+ Marvel and “Star Wars” productions. (“Spidey and His Amazing Friends” is Disney+’s most-watched Marvel-based show.) Disney Channel also still airs a preschooler block in the mornings; thus, Disney Junior going away might not matter to its target audience.
Disney XD has been around since 2009, when it took over the old channel slot for the defunct Toon Disney (a channel launched in 1998). Unlike Disney Junior (or Toon Disney), however, XD has had an unclear purpose in recent years. Despite getting a few originals (such as “Gravity Falls”), it’s mostly been used as a dumping ground for shows Disney Channel doesn’t want, which in the 2010s often meant cartoons (versus Disney Channel’s sitcom-filled slate). Looking at its recent schedule, it’s mostly filled with an absurd amount of reruns of “Big City Greens” and several shows from over a decade ago (“Phineas and Ferb,” “Gravity Falls,” etc.).
Disney+ carries much of the major Disney Channel / Disney XD TV animation catalog. As such, there’s less appeal/purpose for what’s basically “a secondary Disney Channel.”
FXX launched in 2013 as a secondary channel for FX. Originally, it carried a mix of sports (the channel’s previous spot was “Fox Soccer”) and comedy. The latter includes gaining from FX “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and ‘Archer.”
However, recent years have seen FXX shift to an emphasis on adult-oriented animation, particularly as a round-the-clock home for the Fox animated sitcoms (“King of the Hill,” “The Simpsons,” “Futurama,” “Family Guy,” etc.). Said “24/7 Adult Swim-like” approach has been successful enough that it was one of the few ratings success stories for cable animation channels last year. Something that I suspect won’t happen again with Spectrum dropping FXX.
All of the FXX shows (live-action and animated) are available on Hulu.
While the situation doesn’t look good for the above channels, it also sends a major message to other non-Disney-owned secondary cable channels: that they’re expendable. I could easily see similar secondary cable channels like NickToons, Boomerang, BET Her, MTV2, etc. vanish.
Said channels vanishing also might give customers incentive to consider ditching traditional cable TV for streaming, or even a cable TV streaming service like YouTube TV or Fubo. If Spectrum customers (who aren’t sports/news fans) need to get Hulu to watch “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” or the movies on Freeform’s “25 Days of Christmas,” why bother keeping cable at all?