ESPN Still Isn't Quite Getting The Message Cord Cutters Are Sending
from the more-of-the-same dept
We’ve noted repeatedly how ESPN has personified the cable and broadcast industry’s tone deafness to cord cutting and TV market evolution. The company not only spent years
As the data began to indicate the cord cutting trend was very real, insiders say ESPN was busy doubling down on bloated sports licensing deals and SportsCenter set redesigns. By the time ESPN had lost 10 million viewers in just a few years, the company was busy pretending they saw cord cutting coming all the while. ESPN subsequently decided the only solution was to fire hundreds of longstanding sports journalists and support personnel, but not the executives like John Skipper (since resigned) whose myopia made ESPN’s problems that much worse.
Fast forward to this week, when Disney CEO Bob Iger suggested that Disney and ESPN had finally seen the error of their ways, and would be launching a $5 per month streaming service sometime this year. Apparently, Iger and other ESPN/Disney brass have finally realized that paying some of the least-liked companies in America $130 per month for endless channels of crap has somehow lost its luster in the streaming video era:
“There are signs that young people are coming into multi-channel television. People that were once called or thought to be cord-nevers are starting to adopt less expensive over-the-top packages,” Iger said.
Who knew? Did you know? I certainly didn’t know. Bloomberg, meanwhile, informs us that the company’s new service is “Iger’s bet on the future“:
“If anything it points to what the future of ESPN looks like,? Iger said on a conference with investors. ?It will be this app and the experience that it provides.”
But will it? There’s every indication that ESPN’s still only paying lip service to innovation. What consumers say they want is the ability to either avoid ESPN entirely, or buy ESPN the channel on a standalone basis. But it’s important to point out that’s not what ESPN is actually offering here. The new streaming service won’t provide access to ESPN’s existing channel lineup unless you have a traditional cable subscription. Without a traditional cable TV subscription, users of the app will be directed to other content they may or may not actually want:
“The over-the-top service will roll out sometime in the spring, in tandem with a redesign of Disney’s ESPN app. The over-the-top feature will be one part of that app, allowing users to watch live programming that will not otherwise be available on any of its channels. “The third feature is a plus service, we’re calling it ESPN Plus, that will include an array of live programming that is not available ? live sports, live sports events ? not available on current channels,” Iger said in an exclusive interview on CNBC’s “Closing Bell.”
This is something ESPN already tried once with the launch of ESPN 360 (ultimately renamed just ESPN 3) years ago. That channel offered access to streaming sports content, but not any of the content anybody was actually interested in (unless you’re really crazy for men’s professional hopscotch). What users want is either the option to buy ESPN as a standalone channel, or to avoid ESPN entirely. What ESPN’s offering is a streaming channel retread filled with content viewers probably didn’t ask for. All, again, because ESPN is afraid of cannibalizing its traditional viewership numbers by trying something new.
Admittedly ESPN is stuck between a rock and a hard place with no real easy options. ESPN currently makes $7.21 for each cable TV subscriber, many of whom pay for ESPN begrudgingly. Many industry insiders also have told me over the years that ESPN’s contracts with many cable providers state that should ESPN offer its own streaming services, cable providers will no longer be bound by restrictions forcing them to include ESPN in their core lineups, which will only accelerate the number of skinny bundle options being offered without ESPN.
In short, if ESPN offers a standalone version of ESPN, it only encourages customers to cut the cord and move to less expensive (and less profitable) alternatives. If ESPN doesn’t give customers what they want, they’ll cut the cord out of frustration. But if ESPN actually wants to be ready for the future, getting out ahead of the inevitable shift to streaming is the only real solution. Nobody said evolution would be painless or the traditional cable TV cash cow would live forever. ESPN has the option of getting out ahead of the trend, or playing from behind later on when the cord cutting trend shifts from a trickle to a torrent.