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Dish and Turner's Fight Reminds Us That TV Still Hasn't Changed

Digital Video and The Great Unbundling are exciting, but this fight's about Old TV.

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

One day, the TV business may look radically different from how it does today. For now, it looks a lot like it has for many years: TV networks sell big bundles of programming to pay-TV distributors, who make bigger bundles and sell those to pay-TV subscribers.

For a good reminder of the way things work today, see the old-fashioned dispute between Dish Network and Time Warner’s Turner Networks, which has resulted in channels like CNN going off the air for Dish’s 14 million subscribers.

Like all of these fights, this one boils down to a straightforward argument: Dish wants to pay less for Turner’s channels than Turner wants to sell them for. If you want, you can complicate things by factoring in other variables like Time Warner’s need to show Wall Street it can make more money, as well as the fact that deals for its TNT and TBS channels are also being negotiated with Dish.

But the net result is always the same: More money/less money.

Notably, there’s no reason to believe this dispute has much to do with Dish’s push to create an “over the top” digital subscription service. While Dish has already signed on Disney/ESPN, Scripps and A&E for that proposed service, those deals have all come as part of larger renewal deals that kept those networks’ shows going out to Dish subscribers in long-term deals — the kind that are supposedly on the way out.

That is: Old TV comes before Web TV.

It is tempting to see the Turner dispute as a consequence of Time Warner’s announcement that it is unbundling HBO from the rest of pay TV, and will let people watch some of its most valuable programming without a cable subscription.

And it is conceivable that Dish will argue that its customers simply don’t value CNN, the Cartoon Network and other Turner programming enough to pay for those shows, and that it is kicking them out of the bundle for good.

I’m pretty sure that it won’t. Otherwise, Dish will run the risk that customers that do want Wolf Blitzer (or Fat Guy Stuck In Internet, or whatever) will sign up for a rival service that does have it. The logical conclusion is the logical conclusion that almost all of these fights get to: Turner and Dish reach a deal, and the shows go back on the air and back in the bundle. And perhaps, in this case, with an agreement to bundle them in Dish’s new Web service, too.

If that doesn’t happen, then we can come back and revisit this one, and label it a turning point in the evolution/devolution of TV. But for now, let’s hold off.

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