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If you’re a YouTube TV user and you like Sunday Night Football, chances are you’ve spent the past few days wondering whether you’ll be able to stream this weekend’s game.
In case you’re not the kind of person who follows business negotiations between multinational corporations (why would you be? I only follow them because it’s literally my job), here's a primer: Earlier this week it came to light that the contract YouTube TV had to offer some 14+ channels from NBCUniversal—NBC, Telemundo, MSNBC, Golf, etc.—was set to expire on Thursday. Negotiations were reportedly at an impasse, and if the companies couldn’t reach a deal, all those NBCU channels would disappear from YouTube TV streams. NBCU, it seemed, wanted YouTube parent company Google to bundle its own streaming service, Peacock, with YouTube TV. The streaming service, meanwhile, wanted “the same rates that services of a similar size get from NBCU so we can continue offering YouTube TV to members at a fair price,” according to a blog post. On Thursday, the companies agreed to a “short” extension to keep the NBCU channels on YouTube TV.
The outcome of this dustup notwithstanding, it was a harbinger of the fact that navigating the streaming wars doesn’t really feel that different from navigating cable. Or, as our colleagues over at Ars Technica put it, “The dispute is a reminder that the bundling practices common to cable and satellite TV may not be eliminated by the rise of streaming services.” Streaming was supposed to help users cut the cord; more and more, it seems like it’s just out to replace the rope.
Yes, we at WIRED have said some version of this before. Earlier this year, I argued that as media companies consolidated, consumers would ultimately end up with another Big Three— that CBS, ABC, and NBC would ultimately lose territory to, say, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+. That still seems fairly likely. But the new battleground the YouTube TV and NBCU fracas opens up is one centered on carriers. The whole promise of streaming was that content providers could go direct-to-consumer. You want everything Disney has? Get Disney+. Love nature shows and home makeovers? Get Discovery+. But now there are so many services, viewers and companies are desperate to find ways to (in the parlance of the industry) bundle them—something that might feel like déjà vu to anyone who ever tried to make the hard decisions involved in choosing between basic or premium cable packages.
Take, for example, Hulu. The service has become something of a stalwart of the streaming game for a while now. But folks forget that it started as an effort by the parent companies of NBC, ABC, and Fox to offer those channels on a Netflix-like service. It was meant to be a way for legacy networks to get in on the streaming action. In 2019, after Disney closed its $71 billion acquisition of Fox, it gained control of Hulu in a separate arrangement with NBCUniversal’s parent company, Comcast. Now, consumers can get Hulu in a bundle with Disney+ and ESPN+, since, of course, ESPN is also a Disney property. There’s also now FX on Hulu, which gives Hulu subscribers access to a lot of premium Fox content. A Disney channel, ESPN, and FX? If that doesn’t feel like one of the cable packages of yore, nothing does.
This is where things get hairy, though. As part of Disney’s deal for control of Hulu, Comcast agreed to continue to license NBCUniversal content to Hulu until 2024, but NBCU retained the rights to pull back some of its programming that was exclusively licensed to Hulu. With the launch of Peacock last year, it stood to reason that NBCU would eventually want a lot of its programming on that service to bolster its appeal to consumers.
Which leads us back to YouTube TV. The beauty of Google’s service is that it offers dozens of channels—including news, live sports, and premium content—and perks like DVR storage without BS like annual contracts or cable box rental fees. It's a cord-cutter’s dream. But now, as this week’s scuffle with NBCU shows, YouTube, and services like it, could be facing some tough battles to keep all of the channels they’re offering—and may end up bundling other services in with their own to stay in the game. YouTube TV is OK for now, but this era of the streaming wars is only just beginning.