DirecTV takes issue with WBD’s CNN Max distribution, report says

Executives at DirecTV have fired off a warning letter to their counterparts at Warner Bros. Discovery over a recent decision to offer streaming access to live CNN programming within the Max app, according to a report published Tuesday.

The letter, sent by DirecTV executives last week, says the new "CNN Max" stream that debuted in late September likely violates a contractual agreement between the satellite broadcaster and WBD concerning the distribution of the domestic CNN cable channel.

The existence of the letter was first reported in a story published by the New York Times on Tuesday.

For months, executives at WBD have been strategizing ways to offer more CNN content through Max in an attempt to get CNN's programming in front of cord-cutters who have shirked traditional — and expensive — cable and satellite packages for cheaper streaming options. Since debuting several years ago as HBO Max, the streaming service has offered on-demand access to some CNN documentaries and series, including those produced in partnership with HBO, but live news from CNN has remained siloed to the cable network.

One of the big hurdles keeping CNN and WBD from offering live news through streaming were contractual agreements that gave cable and satellite providers mostly-exclusive access to CNN's live shows. Those terms have traditionally included the amount of live programming CNN must produce for its domestic channel and its sister network, the true-crime focused channel HLN.

Getting live CNN programming has been a priority for executives at WBD as cord-cutting erodes the traditional cable and satellite audience. In June, financial publication Axios said officials at WBD were having "active discussions" about how to offer more live CNN shows over streaming without violating the tenants of its contractual obligations with cable and satellite platforms.

Executives apparently settled on distributing a streaming version of CNN International, which has historically operated as a separate business from the domestic version of CNN and which is not technically covered by the distribution agreements with cable and satellite operators (only a few cable operators, plus the live TV version of Hulu, offer CNN International as a companion network to CNN).

For much of its existence, CNN International operated with an entirely different slate of live news and current events programming from the stateside version of CNN. But over the last few years, CNN has increasingly moved more of its domestic programming onto CNN International, with programs like "CNN This Morning," "Anderson Cooper 360" and "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer" simulcasting between the two channels.

Last month, WBD debuted CNN International on Max under the "CNN Max" brand name, along with a promise that the network will eventually launch standalone shows that will be exclusive to the CNN Max stream. As with CNN International, CNN Max simulcasts the same shows from the domestic CNN channel — and that has apparently caught the attention of officials at DirecTV, which shared common ownership with CNN until last year.

StreamTV Insider reached out to three officials at DirecTV, none of whom returned our request for comment or clarification by press time. Officials at CNN referred questions to a spokesperson at WBD, who said the company wasn't offering a specific comment on the letter concerning CNN Max, but affirmed that WBD "maintains strong and meaningful relationships with our affiliate partners."

"Our partners are aware of and understand our rationale with Max, which is to reach new audiences," the WBD spokesperson said.

The brewing situation between WBD and DirecTV is the latest involving a programmer that is trying to get content in front of streamers and distributors who are juggling the new world of ambitious streaming services that challenge their traditional video products.

Last month, Charter Communications was forced to pull dozens of broadcast and cable channels owned by the Walt Disney Company after a distribution agreement between both companies lapsed.

As is common in carriage disputes, the issue largely revolved around fees that Charter was expected to pay in order to offer Disney-owned channels like ESPN, FX, Freeform and National Geographic to subscribers of its Spectrum TV service.

In an unusual twist, Charter executives said they were willing to pay what Disney considered to be the market rate for its channels, but it wanted something more for its subscribers. Specifically, Charter said it wanted to broker a new type of deal with Disney that would allow Spectrum TV customers to get free access to the ad-supported versions of Disney-owned streaming services, along with the flexibility to move Disney-owned channels around various new, budget-conscious Spectrum TV packages.

In the end, the situation was resolved with Charter agreeing to pay wholesale prices for Disney's ad-supported streaming services, which will be offered to Spectrum TV customers as part of their subscription, depending on their TV package. Charter also won a key concession from Disney that allowed it to permanently drop several channels, including Nat Geo Wild, FXM and Freeform.