ESPN Nears Comcast Carriage Deal

Disney’s ESPN network is nearing the finish line in its carriage renewal negotiations with No. 1 cable operator Comcast, with a deal possible within days.

“On Comcast, we are in the final stages of negotiations. It’s actually possible that a deal could be signed within the next week,” Disney CEO Bob Iger said on a conference call with analysts discussing Disney’s fiscal fourth-quarter results.

Iger wouldn’t give details, but he said the Comcast deal would be within ESPN’s general rate structure, and it could also provide other opportunities in broadband and phone service between the two companies.

“I’m actually really pleased with where we are because I think this gives us the ability with Comcast to expand our businesses together,” Iger said on the call. “It’s clear that their investment in technology -- not just in their standard business, but in their new businesses, particularly broadband and the phone-service area -- provides us with significant opportunity as the owners of great brands and great content to really expand our relationship with them and to provide services to their customers that are going to be great for both companies. We’re really looking forward to concluding the deal.”

One opportunity Iger failed to mention is the possibility that Disney could sell its 39.5% interest in cable channel E! Entertainment Television. It has been speculated that Disney’s E! stake -- Comcast owns the rest -- could be worth about $1.5 billion and would be a part of the overall ESPN carriage deal.

Comcast vice president of corporate communications D’Arcy Rudnay declined to comment.

Iger said that traditionally, Disney prefers not to do exclusive deals with distributors, but he added that there are ways to provide specific features or content to specific distributors to enhance the relationship. Iger pointed to Disney deals with retailers where the overall agreement is nonexclusive but some retailers have access to specific products that others don’t.

“I think what you could think about in terms of Comcast is that access to our main products -- ESPN, Disney Channel, etc. -- will be nonexclusive. But the possibility of creating something that is unique just to that relationship with Comcast that they could use as a differentiator is something that we’re going to explore.”