Is Disney’s ESPN in Trouble?



Falling NFL ratings

In October, FierceCable reported that football ratings for Monday Night Football fell 24% in week 5. The fall in ratings raised questions about whether viewers are moving away from watching live sports on TV. The report also stated that viewing of NFL games was down 10% across all cable and broadcast networks broadcasting the games.

Falling NFL ratings are a concern for Disney’s ESPN. Disney was asked during its fiscal 2016 earnings call whether the falling viewership indicates a permanent change in sports viewership and what it means for ESPN.

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Disney stated that it believed speculation on this trend would be premature. The company further explained, “Except I do want to say, this is a season, and it happens to be a season that’s occurring when post-season baseball was very strong, and clearly the election had some impact. Certainly the debates did. So, I think it’s a little too soon to jump to conclusions.” The company also said that it would not be concerned about these falling ratings in the long term.

Nielsen data suggesting heavy subscriber losses for ESPN

Agencies like Nielsen continue to watch Disney’s ESPN closely for its subscriber numbers. Late last month, according to a Variety report, Nielsen withdrew the subscriber data that it had released in the week starting October 24, after its data faced heavy criticism for suggesting that Disney’s ESPN could be suffering major subscriber losses.

However, Nielsen later reaffirmed its data, which indicated that ESPN faced subscriber losses of 621,000 in a month. Disney referred to the Nielsen numbers on its fiscal 2016 earnings call and pointed out that Nielsen’s subscriber numbers don’t measure subscribers for over-the-top services like Hulu. Disney believes these subscribers must be included in order to get a more accurate picture.

As the chart above shows, Disney’s ESPN subscribers continued to fall, from 99 million subscribers in 2013 to 90 million subscribers in 2016.


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