YouTube TV/NBC dispute: What cord-cutters need to know

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As I write this, YouTube TV’s NBC channels are in limbo.

On Sunday, both YouTube TV and NBCUniversal started warning users that their carriage agreement will expire on September 30. If the two companies can’t make a deal by then, YouTube TV will drop more than a dozen NBC-owned channels from its lineup—including local NBC stations—while also dropping its price by $10 per month.

The two companies could always make amends by the time you read this. (I’ll update the story if they do.) But regardless of what happens, the dispute feels like more than just another carriage dispute. Instead, it marks a new chapter in the streaming wars, one in which TV networks fight even harder to fleece TV bundle subscribers, and providers like YouTube TV push back harder to stop them.

Puffing up Peacock

In terms of what’s at stake, NBCUniversal (which is owned by Comcast) operates NBC, Bravo, CNBC, E!, Golf Channel, MSNBC, the Olympic Channel, Oxygen, Syfy, Telemundo, Universal Kids, Universo, and USA Network. It also operates six regional NBC Networks and has a stake in SNY, which could also be dropped in the carriage dispute.

As Variety’s Todd Spangler reported on Sunday, NBCUniversal was not merely trying to extract higher prices for these channels from YouTube (which is owned by Google). The network was also pushing Peacock Premium—normally a $5-per-month standalone service—as a mandatory add-on for YouTube TV subscribers. (A report by industry analysts at Lightshed Partners later corroborated this aspect of the carriage dispute.)

Peacock is NBCUniversal’s attempt to build a streaming business that doesn’t cannibalize cable, so it has little overlap with NBC’s cable channels. While Peacock’s Premium version does offer primetime NBC shows the day after they air and live access to Sunday Night Football, it doesn’t include live local NBC stations or NBC-owned cable channels such as MSNBC, CNBC, or Bravo.

Until now, NBCUniversal and other TV networks have been content to build up their streaming services without forcing them on pay TV subscribers, merely funding the former with profits from the latter. You don’t have to pay for Disney+, Paramount+, Discovery+, or HBO Max as part of your bundle, nor should you.

But after a weak launch and an Olympics in which everything seemed to go wrong, NBCUniversal is casting about for new sources of growth. Hence the desire to push Peacock the old-fashioned way, through mandatory bundling. (Already, Comcast bundles Peacock Premium with its Xfinity TV and internet services, and Cox provides Peacock Premium to its TV subscribers.)

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