It was fitting, albeit likely coincidental, that the Walt Disney Co. announced its $52 billion acquisition of most of the movie and TV assets of 21st Century Fox on the day the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal its own net neutrality rules, because the deal is very much about the future of content delivery over the internet.
Under the deal, Disney would absorb the 20th Century-Fox film and TV studio and its library, including the first three “Star Wars” films; most of Fox’s cable networks group, including National Geographic, FX, and 300-plus international channels but excluding Fox News or Fox Sports; and 22 regional sports networks (RSNs). The deal also includes Fox’s one-third interest in Hulu, giving Disney majority control over the streaming service.
Assuming the deal passes antitrust muster — highly likely given Rupert Murdoch’s closeness to Donald Trump — it will give Disney control over vast new libraries of content as it prepares to significantly expand its direct-to-consumer streaming business. Strategic control over Hulu will also give Disney a solid foundation from which to challenge Netflix and Amazon directly as an over-the-top content aggregator.
Yet, while the coming showdown with Netflix has grabbed most of the headlines about the deal, there is another important streaming dynamic likely to play out that has gotten less attention but which could be directly impacted by the repeal of the net neutrality rules.
Whether, or not, the bulked up Disney succeeds in challenging Netflix and Amazon, its growing direct-to-consumer ambitions give the Mouse a major stake in the coming contest between programming services and broadband providers over the terms and conditions of engagement on last-mile networks.
The over-the-top streaming business has so far developed very differently from traditional movie and television delivery businesses. In the traditional TV business, the owners of the last-mile pipes — cable and satellite operators, local broadcast affiliates — pay program providers for access to their content.
Disney, in particular, has been successful in leveraging that dynamic, earning ESPN the highest per-subscriber carriage fees of any cable network.
Unlike a cable TV system, however, internet access networks have utility and value independent of any particular content, allowing access service providers to build their networks — and subscriber bases — without having to pay for the content moving across those networks.
If anything, the monopoly or duopoly status most internet access providers enjoy within their footprints has raised concerns that ISPs could use the leverage of their control over their networks to compel content providers to pay for access to their subscribers.
The FCC’s original Open Internet Order was designed in part specifically to deny ISPs that leverage, by prohibiting the blocking or throttling of data based on its source, or accepting compensation for favorable treatment of data from a particular source. Those rules left the status quo in place, at least for the time being. But they left open the possibility that the streaming business could eventually develop more like the traditional TV business, in which access providers are compelled to
The FCC has now voted to lift those rules — their ultimate fate awaits the outcome of inevitable litigation — potentially upsetting the current balance of power.
Determining who will ultimately holds the leverage in that balance remains a work in progress, however. One way to read Disney’s bid for Fox is as an attempt to position itself not only against Netflix but against last-mile network operators for the inevitable battles ahead.
From that perspective, the real trigger event for Disney was AT&T’s (still pending) acquisition of Time Warner. Assuming that deal goes through, it will mean that two of Disney’s (and Fox’s) major competitors — NBCUniversal, now owned by Comcast, and Time Warner — will be owned by major broadband providers. That could leave Disney at a disadvantage in the struggle for leverage over the terms of OTT distribution.
One option would have been for Disney to sell itself to a network operator. But the only one out there with the scale to do it and not already betrothed is Verizon, and Verizon execs have made it clear they’re not in the market for a major studio.
By buying Fox, Disney is hoping to gain enough scale as a content provider to treat with network operators on equal or better terms.