from the forest-for-the-trees dept
For years ESPN has been the perfect personification of the cable and broadcast industry’s almost-comic denial regarding cord cutting and market evolution. Long propped up by a system that forces consumers to buy massive bundles of largely-unwatched channels, ESPN has struggled with the rise of streaming alternatives and sleeker, “skinny” channel bundles. The sports network, which has lost 10 million viewers in just the last few years, has been trying to argue that these losses (which caused Disney stock to lose $22 billion in value in just two days at one point) are simply part of some kind of overblown, mass hallucination.
Surveys have shown that 56% of consumers would drop ESPN in a heartbeat if it meant a reduction in the $8 per subscriber the channel is believed to cost. But last year, ESPN exec John Skipper suggested that these departing customers weren’t worth keeping anyway:
“People trading down to lighter cable packages. That impact hasn’t leaked into ad revenue, nor has it leaked into ratings. The people who’ve traded down have tended to not be sports fans, and have tended to be older and less affluent. We still see people coming into pay TV. It remains the widest spread household service in the country after heat and electricity.”
All is well! Nothing to see here! This narrative that cord cutters are somehow uneducated, too old, or otherwise not worth keeping (which isn’t true) sits at the heart of cable and broadcast executive denial. And while execs like Skipper consistently insisted that everything was under control, former ESPN talent like Bill Simmons have noted that the cord cutting revolution came out of left field and surprised the hell out of the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports, which had spent years spending millions on SportsCenter set updates and licensing deals with nary a care in the world.
Instead of identifying market evolution and quickly adapting, ESPN did, instead, what any other legacy company would do. One, it began suing companies that tried to offer more innovative, disruptive cable TV packages that didn’t include ESPN by default. Two, it began yelling at companies like Nielsen simply for showing company executives the truth: ESPN was losing subscribers at an alarming rate. In short, executives doubled down on bad behavior and denial, something fans had noticed for several years:
Pretty amazing sign on ESPN's College Gameday. pic.twitter.com/o2NfeMalSf
— Jason Abbruzzese (@JasonAbbruzzese) December 5, 2015
This week, some ESPN employees began paying the price. Including long-standing workhorse beat reporters like Ed Werder, who was among 100 on-air personalities and writers given pink slips this week.
After 17 years reporting on #NFL, I've been informed that I'm being laid off by ESPN effective immediately. I have no plans to retire
— Ed Werder (@EdwerderFA) April 26, 2017
Poured my heart and soul into ESPN for last 8 years. Moved my wife and 3 kids to CT to go "all in" 5 years ago. Bummed it ended in 3 minutes
— Danny Kanell (@dannykanell) April 26, 2017
Laid off by ESPN today.Although sad cause I loved my job, mostly filled w/gratitude & appreciation for the 9 years #GreatFriendsAndTeammates
— Trent Dilfer (@DilfersDime) April 26, 2017
In a memo posted to the ESPN website, Skipper proclaimed the staff reductions were necessary to “manage change” (something Skipper has shown himself incapable of doing while somehow remaining employed):
“A necessary component of managing change involves constantly evaluating how we best utilize all of our resources, and that sometimes involves difficult decisions…Dynamic change demands an increased focus on versatility and value, and as a result, we have been engaged in the challenging process of determining the talent—anchors, analysts, reporters, writers and those who handle play-by-play—necessary to meet those demands. We will implement changes in our talent lineup this week. A limited number of other positions will also be affected and a handful of new jobs will be posted to fill various needs.”
That’s great and all, but purging your on-air talent won’t magically make executives like Skipper less myopic and more flexible. After losing an estimated 10,000 viewers per day, ESPN recently stated it will finally offer a standalone streaming service. But that won’t solve ESPN’s woes either. I’m told many of Disney/ESPN’s contracts with cable providers contain provisions that prohibit cable providers from offering channel bundles without ESPN — unless ESPN offers a standalone streaming service. In other words, even if ESPN adapts, it opens the door to new skinny, sport-free bundles without ESPN — accelerating subscriber declines.
None of this is pretty, and were I a betting man I’d wonder if Disney/ESPN doesn’t get swallowed up completely by a company like Verizon sometime in the next year. At that point you’d have to wonder if ESPN execs, like John Skipper (you know, the ones actually responsible for the channel’s monumental implosion) might actually face something vaguely-resembling accountability.