ESPN has been one of the biggest losers of the cord cutting and cord shaving era much to its parent company Walt Disney's (NYSE:DIS) chagrin. In the five years from July 2011 to July 2016, Nielsen data shows more than 11 million households dropped ESPN, falling to less than 89 million.
But Nielsen had good news for ESPN with its latest report. It showed an increase of over 1 million households subscribing to ESPN over the past month.
The jump in subscribers isn't due to ESPN's efforts in working with pay-TV operators to get into skinny bundles. Nor is it the result of the growing popularity of over-the-top services like Dish's Sling TV or Sony's PlayStation Vue (Nielsen doesn't count those services). Instead, it appears to be the result of a change in census data, providing a 1.5% bump to every network. ESPN, however, only saw a net increase of 1.2% in its subscriber count, indicating it's still losing subscribers.
Is ESPN still valuable?
The average pay-TV distributor pays ESPN over $7 per month for every subscriber it provides ESPN. With many consumers complaining about the high price of cable TV, distributors have been looking for ways to slash their own costs to meet consumer demands. That means putting together bundles of channels that don't cost as much, and ESPN is easy pickings for distributors looking to slash prices.
But ESPN argues that its network is extremely valuable to distributors looking to obtain a large audience. During Disney's third quarter earnings call, CEO Bob Iger pointed out that Sony didn't launch PlayStation Vue nationwide until Disney and ESPN signed on. He implied that ESPN was at least partially behind the surge in subscriber growth of the over-the-top service.
Likewise, one of Sling TV's selling points when it first launched at the beginning of 2015 was cheap access to ESPN and other live sports programming. Sling TV said it had over 600,000 subscribers at the beginning of the year, and its CEO, Roger Lynch, says growth has been accelerating.
ESPN has been making its case to be part of the skinny bundle, and it's particularly won over the digital distributors. AT&T (NYSE:T) will include ESPN in the subscription tiers of its upcoming DirecTV Now service, and it's bound to secure a spot in Hulu's planned digital TV service set to launch in the first half of next year considering Disney's ownership stake in the streaming platform.
But the majority of consumers don't want it
BTIG conducted a survey at the beginning of the year asking respondents if they would remove ESPN and ESPN2 to save $8 per month on their cable bill. 56% of respondents said they would cut the networks. Not coincidentally, $8 is about how much ESPN charges to carry those two networks.
The survey results indicate that there are a lot of television subscribers that would prefer a low cost bundle of channels that doesn't include ESPN. Disney's job now becomes using its portfolio of networks to get ESPN into more skinny bundles, and then convincing viewers that ESPN is essential to their television experience.
Otherwise, at some point ESPN's pricing power will diminish and Disney's ability to continue increasing revenue from its media networks division while ESPN continues to lose subscribers will be gone. Media networks accounted for 42% of revenue and 48% of operating income through the first nine months of fiscal 2016. And ESPN represents by far the biggest part of that segment.
Whether Disney's efforts with digital distributors and getting its network into more skinny bundles at traditional distributors is paying off is still unknown. Nielsen's data for the year so far indicates ESPN is still losing subscribers despite the modest bump it received (along with every other network) over the last month. Disney will likely provide exact details on net subscriber losses or additions at ESPN in its annual report, which it's expected to file in late November.