Battle seen as possible industry bellwether

Dish has followed through on plans to drop AMC Networks at midnight Saturday as their contract expired and installed new channels in their place.

Dish has about 14 million subscribers. The battle has knocked AMC shares lower in recent weeks and is being closely watched by the industry and Wall Street as a bellwether for upcoming carriage discussions between networks and video providers.

AMC’s contract with AT&T also expired Saturday, but the telco continues to carry the networks — AMC, IFC, WeTV and the Sundance Channel — as it negotiates rates. AT&T’s U-Verse service has 4 million subs. In a statement, AMC reiterated that the AT&T and Dish situations aren’t analogous.

“Dish dropped our networks not because of ratings or rates. In fact, Dish has not discussed rates with us at all. Dish customers have lost some of their favorite shows because of an unrelated lawsuit which has nothing at all to do with our programming,” AMC said on Saturday night.

“In a distinctly different matter, we are in ongoing discussions with AT&T about a new agreement and will update our viewers as soon as possible,” it said.

AMC is home to “Mad Men” and “The Walking Dead.” Its new season of “Breaking Bad” premieres July 16.

Wall Streeters said that regardless of the satcaster’s motive, it will send a message if Dish doesn’t lose subscribers as a result of dropping AMC.

“From the point of view of the entire industry, it’s almost unprecedented to give viewers this kind of notice. Not threatening, (but) saying, ‘We are going to drop it,”‘ said one analyst. “It shows the vulnerability of smaller players. If you are not dealing in a bundle, not as powerful as big cap peers, it will be increasingly hard to maintain leverage.”

AMC has shaped up into a formidable presence in original programming. Wall Streeters also tend to think AMC has a good shot of winning the lawsuit — and collecting a windfall.

AMC and Dish are heading to a New York court for a Sept. 18 breach of contract trial. AMC is asking for $2.5 billion in damages and claims Dish is dropping its channels to gain leverage in the litigation.

Dish has already lined replacements for three AMC channels — it dropped Sundance earlier this month — with what it called “stronger movie and entertainment content.” Mark Cuban’s HDNet Movies is taking AMC’s slot. Style and HDNet replace WE and IFC. Plans are for HDNet to become a new entertainment and music channel called AXS.TV.

In a statement Friday, Dish senior VP of programming David Shull called HDNet Movies and HDNet “exciting offerings for our customers. We will continue to fight hard for choice, control and value in home entertainment.

“A significant portion of any pay TV bill goes to fees for content providers like AMC Networks,” Shull said. “AMC Networks requires us to carry low-rated channels like IFC and WE to access a few popular AMC shows. The math is simple: It’s not a good value for our customers,” he said

Dish never mentions the litigation.

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