ESPN has been losing hand over fist as consumers shift to streaming alternatives and new “skinny” TV bundles of smaller channels. The company is estimated to have lost roughly 7 million subscribers in just a few years, and a recent survey found that 56% of consumers would drop ESPN in a heartbeat if it meant saving $8 a month on their cable bill (the estimate of how much ESPN costs each subscriber). The losses are largely thanks to ESPN executives failing to see the cord-cutting threat coming. Apparently it’s difficult to identify shifting viewership trends with your head buried squarely in the sand.
Fast forward to this week, when viewer-monitoring firm Nielsen released a report stating that ESPN lost more subscribers than ever last quarter. According to the original Nielsen report, ESPN lost 621,000 homes in a single month, as well as losing 607,000 ESPN2 households, and 674,000 ESPNU homes. Interestingly, ESPN was quick to complain that these numbers were in error:
“The Nielsen numbers represent a dramatic, unexplainable variation over prior months’ reporting, affecting all cable networks. We have raised this issue with Nielsen in light of their demonstrated failures over the years to accurately provide subscriber data. The data does not track our internal analysis nor does it take into account new DMVPD entrants into the market.”
As a result, Nielsen was forced to issue a statement saying it was pulling the findings for review:
“Nielsen is investigating a larger than usual change in the November 2016 Cable Network Coverage Universe Estimates (versus the prior month). We take the accuracy of our data very seriously and are conducting a thorough analysis to determine whether or not there is an issue with these estimates. In the meantime, we have removed the November 2016 Cable Network Coverage Universe Estimates file from the Answers portal and ask clients not to use the numbers that were posted Friday. We are working closely with clients and will alert them on the findings of our internal review.”
While it’s entirely possible Nielsen did make a mistake, this isn’t the first time the company has been willing to withhold data simply because the cable and broadcast industry didn’t like what the data indicated. In 2014, Nielsen backed away from including broadband-only household data in the firm’s local TV ratings service because broadcasters didn’t like what that data said. The company spent many years denying that cord cutting was real, then simply changed the name of cordcutting to “zero TV households” when it was forced to actually ackowledge the trend was real.
Again, Nielsen may have flubbed the data and the estimates could be a little too high (given past trends likely not by much), but it’s also entirely possible this is just part of an ongoing attempt by the cable and broadcast industry to shield itself from the reality of evolving markets.