Verizon FiOS May Be Shoving ESPN Back Into Its “Skinny” Bundles

Not even a year after Verizon FiOS began offering so-called “skinny” pay-TV bundles that don’t include the pricey ESPN in the required core package — and in the midst of a lawsuit filed by ESPN’s parent company Disney, alleging that Verizon is violating its contract by doing so — the telecom titan is now hinting that it’s the end times for this dream world where consumers weren’t forced to pay so much for a channel they care so little about.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, the FiOS Custom TV offering starts with a core bundle of around 36 basic cable channels and then customers add on niche-targeted channel packs of around 10 stations each. The lowest tier sold by Verizon includes the core bundle and two channel packs of their choosing, so customers could get ESPN at no additional cost by using one of those two slots for the appropriate sports pack, but they don’t have to.

But it looks like that may soon change. According to Fierce Cable, during yesterday’s call with investors to discuss the company’s quarterly earnings, Verizon Chief Financial Officer Fran “Bam Pow” Shammo dropped a huge clue about the future of Custom TV.

“We’re going to refresh it so that we’re in compliance with our contractual relationships [with programmers],” said Shammo, without directly addressing the huge elephant — draped in an ESPN banner — in the room.

Disney sued Verizon in April 2015, claiming that the new FiOS offerings violated a requirement in its contract with the entertainment company that ESPN can not be placed on some sort of premium sports tier. Verizon has previously maintained that the rearranging of its pay-TV offerings is “well within our rights under our agreements.”

ESPN is cable TV’s most expensive basic channel — most people pay at least $5/month for just the network’s flagship channel; add in ESPN2 and others and you’re reportedly looking at upwards of $8/month. The network got to that point by long being the only national 24-hour sports network, but its dominance is now being challenged by competitors from Fox, NBC, CBS, not to mention the sports-targeted networks from the major pro sports leagues.

We recently asked readers if having ESPN in their cable package was worth the $5/month (at least) that they have to pay for the sports network, and fewer than 10% of you said the channel was so vital that you were willing to foot the bill for it.

Last June, a more scientific survey of American TV viewers asked them to put together their ideal a al carte pay-TV package. While ESPN was the most frequently selected of the sports networks, it was 20th overall, indicating that its importance to TV watchers has been eclipsed by the likes of Discovery, TLC, HGTV, and FX.