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Despite ESPN Whining, Nielsen Confirms Historic Subscriber Losses For Channel

Last week, we noted how Disney and ESPN threw a bit of a hissy fit when Nielsen data indicated that ESPN had one of the biggest subscriber losses in company history last month. According to Nielsen’s data, ESPN lost 621,000 homes in a single month, as well as losing 607,000 ESPN2 households and 674,000 ESPNU homes. That’s of course on the heels of losing more than 7 million subscribers over the last three years or so, thanks largely due to the rise of cord cutting, cord trimming (scaling down your TV package) and the rise of some “skinny bundles” that exclude ESPN from the base channel lineup.

ESPN demanded that Nielsen withdraw its numbers, insisting they represented a “dramatic, unexplainable variation” that didn’t match ESPN’s own numbers. Nielsen obliged, but after conducting an “extensive” review of the numbers found them to be “accurate as originally released.” Of course, this shouldn’t be a surprise; we’ve noted how everybody but ESPN appears to have seen the writing on the wall. But instead of adapting to the changing times, ESPN responded by denying that cord cutting was real, and suing companies like Verizon for trying to bring some flexibility to the traditional cable bundle.

Not too surprisingly, ESPN’s response in light of Nielsen confirming its numbers was to continue denying the very obvious fact that customers are tired of paying an arm and a leg for sports programming many of them simply don’t watch. From an ESPN statement given to the media:

“This most recent snapshot from Nielsen is a historic anomaly for the industry and inconsistent with much more moderated trends observed by other respected third party analysts. It also does not measure DMVPDs and other new distributors and we hope to work with Nielsen to capture this growing market in future reports.”

Except it’s not an “anomaly” at all if you’ve been watching ESPN’s subscriber base drop 2-4% per year right alongside dips in other broadcast ratings. Even sports, long believed to be the untouchable holy grail of television programming, has been suffering a notable decline as younger viewers look for cheaper, more flexible alternatives to the bloated cable bundle. ESPN’s response to these challenges? Either outright denial or incorrect claims by company executive John Skinner that these departing customers are old, poor, and not worth keeping anyway.

ESPN is the biggest beneficiary of the old method of bloated, overpriced channel bundles, but like so many broadcast and cable companies, it’s too terrified of prematurely harming the existing cable TV cash cow to try anything truly innovative. As a result, the company is seeing historic losses in subscribers, with apparently everybody but ESPN seeing that this adaptation (like a standalone streaming service) will need to come sooner rather than later.

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