One bad month of subscriber losses might have been considered a fluke, but two bad months in a row has to be setting off alarms at ESPN and parent company Disney.
The once seemingly invincible sports juggernaut, which has exponentially increased its political posturing in the past several years, lost 621,000 subscribers a month ago, and shed another 555,000 during November (i.e., heading into December), according to Nielsen's December 2016 Cable Coverage Estimates ("monthly" reports are apparently issued on the closest Monday to the first of the month on four-week, four-week, five-week rotation).
Each subscriber lost means roughly $7 per month less, or about $80 per year, going into Disney's coffers. Given the network's heavy multi-year commitments to rights fees paid to carry live sporting events ($7.3 billion next year), the accelerating subscriber decline has to be causing some serious indigestion at Mickey Mouse Headquarters.
As Clay Waters at NewsBusters noted two weeks ago, the network's public editor has acknowledged that excessive leftist political posturing may be a factor in the subscriber falloff:
... the company’s perceived move leftward has had a stifling effect on discourse inside the company and has affected its public-facing product. Consumers have sensed that same leftward movement, alienating some.
"Some"? Though other factors are at work, the most recent declines are the worst and second-worst in ESPN's history. People have been "cord-cutting" from cable and moving to streaming alternatives for some time, so those who wish to lean on those explanations have to explain why those trends have suddenly accelerated. I don't think they can.
So the question is, what is ESPN going to do about this?
The answer seems to be the same one we've seen in the hard-news media for decades: not a darned thing, until people get carried out of their offices still sitting in their chairs.
Recent examples of reflexive tone-deafness include the following:
- Letting several NBA coaches and network analysts rant about Donald Trump's election win. Obviously all of these folks are entitled to their opinion, and entitled to express them. When they're presenting themselves as coaches and reporters, though, they also have to realize that nearly half of their viewers disagree with them, and that they and many others who might agree with them want to watch and follow sports without forced serving of MSNBC- and CNN-level "commentary" coming from people who are generally even less expert in their opinions and "analysis" than those who work at those two cable networks.
- The network, which like so many others in the media tries to generalize guilt, is catching flak from people in Waco, Texas, home of Baylor University, who believe that it has "accused city of Waco residents as well as Baylor of being immoral about the happenings that went on at Baylor." The school's sexual assault scandal has indeed been awful, but tarring an entire school and city for it is out of bounds.
- And don't even get us started with ESPN the Magazine, whose over-the-top politicization has to be having a bleed-through effect on network viewership and the brand's perception.
- The ESPN website, which like so many others in the media went all-in with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's national anthem antics and applauded as other players imitated him and went further, gave Kaepernick an opportunity to pretend that he didn't say what he actually said to a Miami reporter about Fidel Castro, whose death was announced last week and whose regime Kaepernick defended in an interview with a Miami reporter.
Nothing seen in the above is going to stop, or even slow down, the bleeding.
Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.