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YouTube TV couldn’t have picked a worse time to lose ESPN

There’s never a good time for a streaming service to lose channels. Not for you, not for the service. But YouTube TV’s potential loss of the Disney-owned channels — which, among other things, comprises ABC, FX, ESPN, and of course, Disney — could be devastating for what is believed to be the second-largest live TV streaming service in the United States, with more than 3 million subscribers at one point.

The linchpin in this sort of thing tends to be sports — live events whose distribution rights command top dollar. The NFL may be what you think of first when it comes to the sort of thing, with any one of the usual suspects supposedly in the running to carry NFL Sunday Ticket, which lets anyone watch out-of-market games.

So, too, is the case when it comes to this latest carriage dust-up. Losing your local affiliate of ABC would be bad enough. (Can you imagine a cable company randomly losing ABC, CBS, or NBC?) Losing all the Disney channels isn’t great, especially if you have kids.

Update December 19: YouTube TV and Disney have reached a deal.

Update December 18: No deal was reached, and the Disney-owned channels have gone dark.

ESPN on YouTube TV.
Phil Nickinson/Digital Trends

But losing ESPN in December is the nightmare scenario — a plot point that Disney executives no doubt know full well. College football bowl games begin on Friday, December 17, the day on which the current YouTube TV-Disney agreement expires. There are just two games that day. But 24 hours later, ESPN and ABC will broadcast a combined seven games. While none of the early bowl games would be considered marquee matchups, they’re still games that fans and YouTube TV subscribers will care about.

In all, there are 44 bowl games between December 17 and January 10, when the college football national championship game will be played. ESPN is the exclusive home to the semifinals and final game.

While nothing is for certain, there’s almost no likelihood that YouTube TV (and by extension, Google) will let things get that far. The bulk of the bowl schedule comes after Christmas. The semifinal games are among five on New Year’s Eve, and the national championship game is on January 10. There’s a lot of time between now and then. And while YouTube TV has planned for the eventuality of losing channels by preparing to lower its monthly fee by $15 until a new deal is reached, it’s also known for coming up with last-minute agreements, such as it did recently with Roku.

This impasse also is different in that it’s relatively easy to switch streaming services. There’s no new hardware to buy. Just sign up with Hulu With Live TV or Sling or FuboTV, and you’re pretty much right back to where you left off. Sure, the channel lineups won’t be quite the same. But you’ll have ESPN and the other channels that YouTube TV stands to lose.

Disney knows this. YouTube TV and Google know this. And it gives everyone that much more reason to reach a deal and save some face — and save the customer churn that would inevitably occur.

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Phil Nickinson
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