Why NBCU Going Dark on Dish Would Matter More Than Usual

Removing news in an election cycle and pissing off the WWE Universe are two things that any program distributor should want to avoid

This weekend, NBCUniversal stations will go dark for Dish subscribers unless a last-minute deal or extension is reached.

Neither of those seem likely at the moment. There is a third option — arbitration — which would keep the channels live in the interim. That alternative would be Dish’s prerogative, thanks to the way FCC regulations work.

To invoke such a recourse, however, Dish would have to be pretty comfortable with its position, and those on the other side of the fence don’t believe the multichannel video programming distributor is holding the best cards. Dish has said publicly that if the parties involved can’t figure this out the old-fashioned way, it will file for arbitration. From the opposing end of negotiation table, that could be perceived as a public bluff.

These carriage disputes — in which content and cable providers spar over how much the latter should pay to carry the stations of the former — happen all the time, especially with the satellite companies, and especially with Dish. But this one matters more, for several reasons.

For starters, NBC was the top-rated broadcast net in the key 18-49 demographic all the way until Super Bowl 50 — a position it had claimed for several years running. Sans that big game, it’d still be No. 1, a slot the broadcast network plans to reclaim at least by the time of the Summer Olympics, in August. Right now, NBC is in the throes of battling back there before the traditional fall season even ends — we’ll see if that’s possible in the coming weeks and months.

With the new hit series “Little Big Shots” airing again this Sunday and “The Voice” getting to the good stuff early next week, a Dish blackout would be felt in living rooms nationwide, which could have an impact on TV ratings.

Dish currently boasts almost 14 million subscribers, and its biggest market is the all-important Los Angeles market. The satellite TV provider has roughly 300,000 subs in New York City, the No. 1 media market in the country. Some of those are Nielsen set-top boxes, which means they’ll be counted or not counted in the numbers, depending on what happens.

But NBC isn’t NBCUniversal’s only broadcast channel, lest you forgot Telemundo. In this election year, Telemundo is essentially one of two broadcast options (Univision being the other) for Spanish-speaking Latinos in America. To say that particular demographic is important in the 2016 race would be an understatement, right Donald Trump?

The broadcast networks may eventually be spared in a Dish blackout, as the sat-TV company could elect to drop only NBCUniversal cable channels instead. After all, broadcast is technically a public commodity — but that would still require a good-faith decision by Dish, and there’s plenty of bad blood here.

Even if the Charlie Ergen-founded company met subscribers halfway, so to speak, there is plenty of news and election coverage at stake on NBCU’s cable channels, like MSNBC. There’s also a ton of entertainment there — and some are big series with rabid fanbases. For starters, Syfy would go away, and hybrid channel CNBC would follow suit. Those are small potatoes to the worst-case scenario.

More damningly, you don’t mess with the WWE Universe. Pro wrestling fans will probably once again trend #StopTheDrop tonight when “Smackdown” airs on USA Network, in what could be its last Dish run for a while. If the blackout actually does happen, it’ll be an even bigger deal come Monday’s “Raw” — particularly with Wrestlemania 32 right around the corner, on April 3.

And fans of Bravo’s “Real Housewives” and “Vanderpump Rules” are no less outspoken than those of pro wrestling.

We’re certainly not saying NBCUniversal is in the right — the media provider very well could be the greedy party here — but content is king, and the Comcast subsidiary has the content. Fans just want to see their shows, they really don’t care about two massive media companies embroiled in a pissing contest.

Of course, NBCU is saying it’s in the right, which should come as no surprise.

“We are disappointed that, at this late stage, it is still entirely possible that Dish may drop the most-watched portfolio of networks for their own subscribers, which includes NBC, Telemundo, USA, Syfy, Bravo, CNBC, MSNBC and more,” a spokesperson exclusively told TheWrap.

Dish did not provide TheWrap with a comment beyond Wednesday’s statement, which readers can view here.

Right or wrong, things always look worse for the TV provider, even though both sides will lob blame-grenades publicly at the other. Usually, such disputes get an 11th-hour agreement, or at least an extension, though TheWrap has been told this dispute is different and that both sides are unusually far apart. Lawsuits rarely help a situation, and one was filed yesterday, with Dish suing NBCU for breach of contract.

Basically, Dish claims that NBC violates their agreement by publicly lobbying its side of the dispute via crawls on owned-and-operated stations. It’s business information that simply shouldn’t be out there for consumers.

Either way, optically, it would be Dish appearing to keep WWE fans, liberal MSNBC newshounds and “Real Housewives” housewives away from their favorite shows — and that’s a bad look for Dish to have.

We’ll find out Monday if “Raw” fans are chanting “This Is Awesome!” — or instead yelling something too profane to print.