Dish/AMC fight breaks bad, channels banished to the 9,000s

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OK, so who’s geeked up for the upcoming fifth and final season premiere of AMC’s Breaking Bad?

Lets just put it this way: In Englewood, Colo., where Dish Network is headquartered, nobody seems to be circling July 15 on their calendar.

On Sunday night, Dish banished AMC Networks’ channels to the far-flung reaches of its spectrum, downgrading flagship outlet AMC from channel number 130 to the barely-ever-visited 9,609.

Also read: Dish’s Ergen: Streaming on Netflix “devalues” Mad Men

It’s the latest — but perhaps most violent  — volley in a dispute that could end with AMC channels actually being pulled off Dish when the current carriage agreement expires June 30.

With the dispute between the pay TV service and AMC looking nastier and more complicated than the average carriage impasse, it might time to wonder: What would happen if AMC, a leading-edge programmer of zeitgeist-shifting, Emmy-winning hits — and a media company that’s proven to be very comfortable providing its content to over-the-top channels — were to suddenly be cast off the nation’s No. 3 pay TV service, which has 14 million subscribers? Would it become even more aggressive in the way it licenses its shows for transactional and subscription VOD?

And what would happen if Dish were to actually make good on threats to draw the line on spiraling programming costs by refusing to grant a carriage fee increase to a rather prominent programmer? What kind of subscriber hit will it take? If the loss isn’t too great, will it embolden other multi-channel service providers to take similar stands?

It seems we could be on the cusp of answering a few of these questions.

Dish’s rather incendiary decision to downgrade the channels came after AMC ran brief onscreen promos Sunday night during presentations of its hit series Mad Men, calling Dish subscribers to action by visiting keepamcnetworks.com. Once there, they’re not only given a phone number so they can call Dish to voice their concerns directly, but visitors can also punch in their zip code to learn about alternative pay TV service providers in their area.

Of course, AMC didn’t invent this part of the playbook — Fox Networks employed the same strategy with its FX channel last year, with series producers including profane Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter appearing in interstitials that urged fans of the show to harang DirecTV.

So far, Vince Gilligan, creator of AMC’s crystal-meth-themed hit Breaking Bad, and Matt Weiner, mastermind of its 1960s Madison Avenue  period drama Mad Men, haven’t taped any PSAs of their own.

With Dish Network playing hardball in a way DirecTV never did — FX never came close to be cast off into the quadruple digits, after all  — who knows if Gilligan or Weiner could even help at this point?

Dish’s carriage accounts for around 15 percent of AMC’s base of nearly 96 million homes. And AMC is trying to triple carriage fees that average around 25 cents per subscriber.

With a flurry of new regional sports networks to pay for, Dish has openly said it isn’t too excited about shelling out more for AMC programs that cater to an upscale urban audience for a subscriber base that it says is predominantly rural.

For its part, AMC continues to insist the dispute is less about money than litigation over an unrelated matter — a five-year-old case involving now-defunct HD programming service Voom Networks. That service was owned by AMC’s previous corporate iteration, Rainbow Media, and Dish pulled it off its grid in 2008 claiming it wasn’t drawing enough viewers.

AMC’s $2.5 billion breach-of-contract complaint over the matter is set to go to trial in September, an outcome Dish would like to avoid.

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