Thanks to EchoStar's ( DISH) clash with Viacom ( VIAB), about 17% of EchoStar's customers won't be able to watch Dan Rather on the evening news.

Now you know what media executives mean when they talk about such dry-sounding topics as "leverage," "content vs. distribution" and "improving our competitive position."

On one level, the dispute between EchoStar and Viacom is simply two parties fighting over money.

But their fight also illustrates the ongoing tension between content and distribution in the media industry -- that is, the companies that create and program television channels on the one hand, and the cable and satellite operators who deliver a bundle of these channels into people's homes.

In this context, the EchoStar-Viacom conflict illustrates why all of these companies are trying to get bigger -- why Comcast ( CMCSA) wants to buy Disney ( DIS), why Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. ( NWS) took a controlling stake in DirecTV parent Hughes Electronics ( HS), and why EchoStar itself previously attempted take over Hughes.

The bigger you are when you are negotiating deals such as these, the longer you can wait to blink.

Disputes between programmers and operators over pricing and carriage have been around since the dawn of cable TV, though much of the arguing has taken place behind closed doors.

The Viacom-EchoStar dispute, however, is the latest of a recent series in which such negotiations have been leaked into the public consciousness. Over the last few months, for example, cable operator Cox Communications ( COX) loudly decried the cost of sports programming until reaching deals with both News Corp.'s Fox ( FOX) Sports Net and Disney's ESPN.

In 2002, a tiff between Cablevision ( CVC) and the privately held YES Network resulted in the New York area cable operator's not carrying Yankees games. Earlier, a dispute between Time Warner ( TWX) and Disney resulted in ABC stations' temporary absence from Time Warner cable systems.

Viacom and EchoStar aren't just arguing over the price that EchoStar will pay for carrying CBS's 16 owned-and-operated local TV stations, as well as other Viacom programming such as Nickelodeon, MTV, BET and Comedy Central. Judging from their comments, they're also negotiating over what Viacom programming beyond these sure-fire crowd-pleasers EchoStar will be carrying. EchoStar, for example, accused Viacom Tuesday of demanding that Dish carry Viacom-owned channels "of little or no measurable appeal to viewers."

In negotiations such as these, magnitude does matter. The larger a distributor is, the more power it has in negotiations, given the outsized role it plays in any particular channel's subscription and/or advertising revenue. Thus, if Comcast, the nation's largest operator of cable systems, were to drop a channel from each of its 21.5 million households, the results on the programmer would likely be devastating.

On the other hand, the more popular a channel is -- and the more popular channels owned by one particular company -- the more leverage that particular programmer has in goading a particular distributor to carry its programming at its desired terms. If a distributor doesn't carry the programming that viewers want to see, a certain number of customers will overcome the inertia of paying their monthly bill and seek programming elsewhere.

That is what Viacom is counting on in this particular conflict. "Fortunately, consumers have a choice," the company said in a statement. Dish Network customers desiring Viacom programming, the company said, can switch to one of the other "reputable" cable or satellite operators carrying the channels. "We urge them to do so."

Some sell-side analysts Tuesday indicated that EchoStar was coming up short in the leverage department relative to Viacom.

While Cablevision lost 1% of its subscribers when it dropped the Yankees, "We believe the impact of not having Viacom's market-leading and broadly appealing stations would be more severe," wrote Legg Mason's Daniel Zito in a Tuesday note. Zito has a hold rating on EchoStar.

"We view EchoStar's stalemate with Viacom as providing only downside for EchoStar," wrote Oppenheimer's Thomas Eagan in a Monday note. The loss of 25,000 to 50,000 subscribers translates into a share-price loss of between 17 cents and 36 cents, estimated Eagan, who has a neutral rating on EchoStar. "The Dish stock pullback from the headline risk, however, could be higher."

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