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Late-Year Negotiations Have Comcast Talking to NBCU

Two people shake hands
(Image credit: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)

As the holiday season approaches, pay TV subscribers can start looking forward to worrying about not being able to see their favorite programming because of year-end carriage disputes.

Over the years, many a Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s have been tainted as cable operators, satellite distributors, programmers and station owners square off, threatening to pull signals and, in some cases, actually blacking out channels, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for weeks.

At this point, some carriers have warned subscribers of potentially going out of contact and losing the right to retransmit some channels. Some of these warnings are more serious than others.

For example, on Comcast’s Xfiinty Upcoming Contract Renewals site, there’s a warning that as of November, FX, FXX, National Geographic and NatGeo Wild could vanish. (Subs of Hulu--still partly owned by Comcast--will still get FX on Hulu.) While Comcast has a pretty solid record of avoiding blackout, it's worth noting that Comcast’s top execs were not happy when Rupert Murdoch decided not to sell those channels, and the rest of 21st Century Fox to Comcast and instead let The Walt Disney Co., acquire them.

It’s hard to tell how much of a chance there is those Disney channels get blacked out, but odds are much higher that some of the other channels on the Xfinity Contract Renewals site--notably Bravo, CNBC, E!, Golf Channel, Olympic Channel, Oxygen, Syfy, Telemundo, Universo, USA and a bunch of NBC Sports regional sports networks--will be pulled in December.

Those channels are owned by NBCUniversal, which is a division of Comcast. Essentially one side of Brian Roberts’ house is negotiating with the other side. But a deal must be reached, and that deal will be a factor in how much other distributors pay, given the industry’s reliance on Most Favored Nation agreements that say that I get the same price you gave them.

NBCU executives declined to comment and a Comcast spokesman pointed to the statement on the Xfinity site that says: “We expect that we will be able to reach an agreement with the owners of these channels to continue carrying them well into the future. Comcast has successfully renegotiated thousands of expiring contracts over the years and rarely experienced an interruption of service.”

Insiders also pointed to a similar disclosure by AT&T that pay TV services could be prevented from distribution channels that are run by AT&T WarnerMedia unit. 

Those networks include Cartoon Networks, CNN, TBS, TNT, truTV and Turner Classic Movies.

“If reasonable agreements cannot be reached with the programmers these channels will no longer be available,” the AT&T notice said.

We’ll be sitting by the the tube--and the phone--to see who will be reasonable.