Here’s a fun fact for you: five multi-national corporations own the broadcast rights to nearly all the sports you watch on both cable and broadcast television — all five pro sports leagues in America, all of the college sports, all of the tennis and golf, and many of the top international sports events.
That would be staggering enough if those same corporations didn’t also own nearly all the channels you watch on cable and satellite TV. Here’s how it breaks down:
1.) The Walt Disney Company
Sports channels: ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPNEWS, ESPN Classic
Broadcast network: ABC
Other channels: ABC Family, Disney Channel, Disney Junior, Disney XD, 50% of A+E Networks (A&E, History Channel, Biography Channel, Lifetime, etc.)
2.) News Corporation
Sports channels: Fox Sports 1 (coming in August, currently SPEED), Fox Sports 2 (coming in August, currently Fuel TV), Fox Soccer (going away in August), Regional Fox Sports Nets
Broadcast network: Fox
Other channels: Fox News, Fox Business, Fox Classics, Fox Movie Channel, FX, National Geographic Channel, Nat Geo Wild
Sports channels: NBC Sports Network, Golf Channel
Broadcast network: NBC
Other channels: Bravo, Chiller, Cloo, CNBC, E!, G4, MSNBC, Oxygen, Syfy, USA Network
4.) Time Warner
Sports channels: TNT, TBS
Broadcast network: The CW (50%)
Other channels: HBO, CNN, HLN, TNT, TBS, TruTV, Turner Classic Movies, Cartoon Network, Boomerang, Adult Swim
5.) CBS Corporation
Sports channels: CBS Sports Network
Broadcast network: CBS, The CW (50%)
Other channels: TV Guide Network, Showtime
In the pay TV arena, all five of these corporations benefit greatly from bundling, the practice TV service providers use to group dozens of channels together to offer the perception of greater value to potential subscribers. Thanks to the practice of bundling, these five monoliths can all offer lots of niche channels and get cable and satellite subscribers to pay for all of them — including the ones they don’t watch.
In the days before hundreds of channels, individual channels themselves were the bundles. Turner Broadcasting, a TimeWarner subsidiary, still uses this strategy — in no small part because their attempt at a sports channel, CNNSI, was a miserable failure. So Turner shows baseball and basketball on TNT and TBS in order to make those channels more valuable and charge higher subscriber fees for them. NBA fans are subsidizing all those Law and Order reruns, while the Law and Order junkies are subsidizing the NBA.
With cable TV, however, bundling benefits content providers on a much larger scale. If you’re a sports fan, you might be okay with paying for ESPN, but chances are you’ll have to pay for all those Disney channels and all those A+E channels, too. You might be looking forward to Fox Sports 1 & 2, but you’ll also have to chip in for Fox News, Fox Business, FX, and Nat Geo. That’s the bargain of pay TV. Doesn’t seem like much of a bargain for viewers, does it?
This is the main reason why a la carte cable remains out of reach for so many customers who demand it. These five media monoliths (and a few others) have a really sweet deal right now, and as long as only 1% of all pay TV customers are cutting the cord, they’re going to hold on to it. Comcast, the largest cable company in America, would be especially interested in keeping bundling alive, too, now that it owns NBCUniversal and collects subscriber fees for so many channels.
But live sports are the nail that stirs cable’s brandy, because unlike movies and TV shows, sports lose nearly all their dramatic value after the games are over. Sports fans are a captive audience, and non-sports fans get the privilege of footing the bill for them.
There is a sixth player entering the game — Al Jazeera Media Networks, who launched BeINSport in the U.S. and Europe last year and bought Current TV in order to launch a new 24-hour news network in America. BeINSport has the broadcast rights to the Spanish, Italian, and French top-flight soccer leagues, and the English Football League Cup and Football League Championship. In terms of American sports, BeINSport has only a few U.S. national team World Cup qualifiers and the Superbike World Championship, which hosts one race in California. Many believe that BeINSport will make a play for the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League before the decade is out, increasing the price for both properties.
It’s telling, though, that only an ambitious Qatari company backed by billions of oil dollars seems capable of making a dent in the established TV sports hegemony. Welcome to the 21st-century media game.