With legacy pay-TV under siege from cord-cutting subscribers and high-profile alternatives such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu and now Apple TV+, the status quo for traditional carriage agreements has gone out the window.
And so it was that Comcast last month quietly announced it would soon end Xfinity subscriber access to Starz, the premium movie and TV service it acquired in 2016 for $4.4 billion.
The news was significant since Comcast represents about a third of Starz’ 24.4 million subscribers. Starz, which operates its own branded $8.99 monthly subscription streaming service, has been a profit vehicle for Santa Monica, Calif.-based Lionsgate.
Comcast reported it will replace Starz on Dec. 10 with Epix, the premium service owned by MGM and formerly Lionsgate, unless a new agreement can be reached. The news has contributed to a 9% drop in Lionsgate’s stock valuation — which is already down nearly 50% in the fiscal year.
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The negotiation impasse has reportedly caught the attention of the Department of Justice, which continues to have Comcast in its crosshairs ever since its acquisition of NBC Universal in 2009. Back then, regulators forced the cable giant to relinquish management input on its stake in Hulu, citing antitrust issues.
Earlier this year Comcast sold its Hulu stake to Disney after acquiring Sky satellite TV operator in the United Kingdom.
Comcast’s NBC Universal unit is readying its own SVOD service, Peacock, early next year.
The situation prompted Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Susan Collins (R-ME) to contact Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim to investigate the situation. Delrahim played a significant role in the DOJ’s failed attempt to stop AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner.
“These changes could lessen competition in the video programming market and limit choices for many thousands of consumers in Maine and millions more across the nation,” Collins wrote in a letter to Delrahim as reported by CNBC.
“I encourage both of you to seek a win-win solution and consider all options to keep Starz programming on the air,” Feinstein wrote in a separate letter.
Comcast is employing strategy out of Dish Networks’ playbook, which typically includes threats to halt access to third-party content distribution for more favorable distribution terms. Indeed, Dish currently has HBO blacked out to it subscribers.
Comcast, like Dish, contends its subs can access services such as Starz and HBO independently, thus negating what it considers to be excessive carriage fees.
“At the end of the day, this is a routine commercial negotiation that raises no conceivable antitrust concerns,” Comcast said in a statement.
Starz countered that Comcast is forcing its subs to pay more for its service.
“By unilaterally taking Starz out of its packages with no refund … Comcast is unfairly depriving them of relatable programming that reflects their cultural experience,” read a Starz statement.
Lionsgate reports third-quarter (ended Sept. 30) financial results Nov. 7.