Warner Bros. Discovery and Disney recently renewed a unique deal that keeps the franchise’s 11 movies in heavy cable and broadcast rotation — especially during the holidays
Updated December 22, 2023 at 12:41 p.m. EST|Published December 22, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EST
“The Empire Strikes Back” was something he’d watch a lot during those winters, said Groves, 44, co-host of a Star Wars podcast called “Echo Base.” When the movie ended, he’d pick up his own Kenner-brand Star Wars toys and rush outside into the cold winter snow to reenact the movie’s epic battle on the icy planet of Hoth. Those repeat airings of Star Wars became “an extension of my family,” he said, especially during the holidays.
Graves’s experience isn’t unique. Millions of Star Wars fans get nostalgia pangs during the holiday season, when they are accustomed to seeing broadcasts of their beloved movies — around Christmas, especially, but also New Year’s, Memorial Day weekend, Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July. In decades of repeat broadcasts in exclusive cable TV licensing deals, a Star Wars marathon can pop up during any holiday weekend, all year, and it can have the power of the Death Star’s tractor beam, drawing everyone in: Before you know it, most of the day has elapsed, one Star Wars chapter after another, shot through with Verizon, Burger King and Liberty Mutual ads.
At Christmas, the Star Wars trilogies and two spinoff films (“Rogue One” and “Solo”), which no one would put on an official list of “Christmas” movies, blare in the background, filling the space between football games, entertaining the kids as well as the sentimental adults. Even though it is true that in 2023 anyone can stream a Star Wars movie any old time, without ads.
“When I stumble onto watching Star Wars on TV, it’s usually a complete surprise,” said Sean Roome, a 28-year-old Star Wars fan from Portland, Ore. “It’s something I didn’t know I wanted but it’s always appreciated. … You can spend countless hours in a galaxy far, far away. All in all, never a bad way to spend a day off.”
That’s why both Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery — two mega companies constantly battling for viewership, ratings and audience share — recently came to an agreement akin to the Rebellion and Empire’s Coruscant Accords: They both now have the rights to air Star Wars marathons on their respective cable networks, with a keen eye on making sure they don’t infiltrate the other’s territory.
Disney, of course, owns Star Wars, which it bought for billions of dollars from George Lucas in 2012. But Warner Bros. Discovery’s Turner and TNT cable networks have had the lock on a Star Wars TV license for a long, long time.
When Disney-owned FX aired a Star Wars marathon over a weekend this fall, it indicated the beginning of a new arrangement, one that’s almost as complicated as a Skywalker family dinner. Rather than keep Star Wars all to itself, Disney re-upped Warner’s right to broadcast the all the films for the foreseeable future. Neither company would disclose the duration of the deal, which is a lucrative arrangement for two companies that would typically not do each other any favors, especially in a combative streaming era.
Warner, which just aired all three trilogies during the opening days of December, doesn’t have any plans to run the film series again for the holidays. But FX, now owned by Disney, has multiple Star Wars marathons on tap this month, including a marathon on Dec. 23 and 24. Additionally, Disney-owned ABC recently aired “The Empire Strikes Back” on a Sunday night — a rare sighting of a “Star Wars” film on broadcast TV.
Star Wars is a story ripe for the holiday season. At its core, the original trilogy is about a young boy trying to save the galaxy and start his heroic journey. Looking at it a little deeper, you’ll see vivid worlds of snow, cute teddy bear armies, a toy store’s worth of shiny starships. Add to that a bunch of family drama.
Long associated with summertime blockbusters at the movie theaters, “It was made for the winter time,” Groves said. For fans of a certain age, something special somehow remains about Star Wars being on the television.
The rights to air the Star Wars films on television have bounced around since the original film’s cable rights first became available to millions through pay-per-view devices in 1982 — two years before CBS had the right to broadcast it. For a long time, standard practice within the industry gave HBO and other pay channels like Showtime the opportunity to present movies after their theatrical run first before they appeared on network television.
CBS, NBC and Fox all had their shots at airing various Star Wars projects thereafter, including when CBS premiered the heavily maligned “Star Wars Holiday Special” in 1978. NBC aired “The Empire Strikes Back” in 1987 with a notable Darth Vader introduction video. Linear TV rights shuffled around with the prequels trilogy, which debuted in the early-aughts. “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones” were sent directly from the studio of Twentieth Century Fox to the Fox TV stations for their premieres.
Eventually, the Turner networks got the opportunity to air the original Star Wars films on their channels. In 2016, Warner nabbed full cable rights to 10 of the “Star Wars” films from Disney in 2016 in a seven-year deal worth $250 million. This was the first time that TBS and TNT had the right to air the “Star Wars” movies, though TBS specifically had a “few small windows” to air the franchise’s first film, “A New Hope” in 1999, according to a Warner spokesperson. (The cable rights to 1977’s “A New Hope” were primarily owned by Twentieth Century Fox, for which WBD paid separately so it could air the film on TV.) The deal was for seven years, with an end date in September 2023.
Warner, which said it would not comment on the terms of its deals with Disney, was willing to pay nine figures for the franchise because of demand and nostalgia, especially in 2016, when Disney had just started releasing new Star Wars movies (beginning with “The Force Awakens” in 2015). The company decided to stack a marathon of films together in the first week of December 2016 because fans wanted to see the older films to prepare for “Rogue One,” which was being released later than month, said Michelle Durham, senior vice president of programming, planning and strategy for Warner Bros. Discovery.
“We were hearing from the audience that that’s really what they wanted,” she said. “These are very character-driven franchises that you want to spend the entire story arc with. And we wanted to provide that foundation for people.”
Under the agreement with Disney, TNT and TBS now reserve the first week of December for Star Wars every year. It’s become something of a holiday tradition for the channels, similar to how they air “A Christmas Story” for 24 hours straight beginning on Christmas Eve. It helps, Durham said, that Star Wars is a “perennial fan favorite” that generates “high numbers” and ratings for TNT and TBS.
“We always want to curate a place where people are going to spend time and want to really experience television with their whole family and with their friends,” she said. “The movies that we really lean into are kind of an intergenerational experience and a place that you can gather and have fun.”
In 2019, after Disney bought and took full control of 20th Century Studios and its FX channel and launched its own streaming service called Disney Plus, the next goal became clear — get back the rights to air Star Wars on TV.
But the landscape was complicated. The cable rights to the newer Disney Star Wars films had different end dates compared with the original six.
After some negotiations, Warner and Disney signed a new multiyear deal in October that allows both companies to keep airing the films on TV — Disney on FX, Freeform and ABC; Warner on TNT and TBS. Disney also uses the broadcasts to continually remind viewers they can access the entire Star Wars galaxy, commercial-free, on Disney Plus.
It’s unclear what will happen when the current deal ends between Disney and Warner Bros. All the films are now on the same timeline, though, so when the current deal wraps up, the cable rights will be available. Disney also has new Star Wars films in the pipeline, which would probably affect the length and cost of any deal it makes for licensing rights.
For now, Disney will air Star Wars on FX during the winter months because it’s a “Christmas-adjacent” franchise, said Dennis Goggin, director of program planning of Disney-owned Freeform and the “25 Days of Christmas” schedule. Star Wars doesn’t quite match the warmth and cuddly, cozy feeling of Freeform’s 25 Days of Christmas slate, but it’s close enough that Disney still feels the desire to promote it.
According to Goggin, Disney programmers coordinate with third-party companies to figure out their holiday TV schedules. Sometimes multiple stations have licensing rights to different projects, like “Home Alone.” Programmers will coordinate with one another through emails and phone calls to make sure movies and marathons aren’t bumping up against one another.
“Our rule is always do no harm,” Goggin said.
This article initially attributed information to Michelle DiMartino, vice president of communications for Warner Bros. Discovery. It was actually Michelle Durham, senior vice president of programming. The story has been corrected.