I don’t think I’ll miss ESPN


Over the summer, I saw a few articles that discussed the future of cable and satellite television services. And just about all of them saw the same shifting landscape… that between the attempts at establishing subscription services, the potential for networks to earn even more revenue from popular shows by combining syndication with an on-demand library, and the viewing habits of consumers, the future would likely see an unbundling of packages.

Now… it won’t be easy… and it won’t be soon. Many groups are making far too much money with the way things are currently organized. But the reality is… technology moves on…

Professional sports leagues have broadcast playoff games in places that are not those classic, legendary, big three networks.

The internet, smartphones, and all sorts of delivery methods and viewing devices, are taking over from the set in the living room.

Again though… developing story… and the progress in so many areas does not necessarily predict the immediate demise of another. Still… ordering channels one-by-one and not from package listings. That brings about an interesting question… what channels would you pay to see?

And more to the point… from that question to this essay… get ready for ESPN to fight the change.

Obviously you pay for all of the stations you have available in one way or another. Your monthly bill attests to that. It’s just that your mind plays tricks with you when you see HBO, Showtime and others treated as premium options. Your mind overlooks the monthly movie or two or so that you ordered and paid something like five bucks to see. These and other things are listed separately. Extra charges. And it almost makes it look like you aren’t paying for TBS, BBC America and whatever other stations are part of the service plan you pay for to get television into your home.

In my opinion, the network with the most at risk in this process is ESPN. And I’ll sum it up in five words… I won’t pay for ESPN.

Want five more dangerous words? Many of you won’t either.

Understand, I love sports. Many of you love sports. We want to see them.

But EPSN has changed over the years. It’s not about sports as much. It’s about flash and screaming and jumping around to make sure we’re looking in their direction. The best sports though? Live games… coverage from reporters… and more? Seldom on ESPN.

My favorite pet peeve is the sponsored “best of” segments that do a better job of causing blinding headaches than they do of delivering any moments that could really be called highlights (but I’m sure do a fantastic job of raising money). The network… actually, networks, since it’s a family of channels… is becoming virtually unwatchable for the majority of the day.

And that’s a shame.

I remember watching Australian Rules Football matches when ESPN first started. Those were awesome. I miss those.

Instead, we’ve got clueless reporters disagreeing with each other… and disagreeing in ways that make no sense at all as arguments, but quite often get the reporters criticized by others (and as such they stay in the public eye, under the no press is bad press theory).

I don’t want to get too far off topic here though… so let’s get back to discussing ESPN and whether or not you’d pay for it as a general concept, and not looking around for why or why not. Again, I see trouble ahead for ESPN. And it could be big trouble. Because I’d be willing to bet they have no desire to see their channels placed on an a la carte menu, either individually or as one big ESPN bundle.

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to find out that ESPN is the most costly of the “free” channels on your service. According to several sources I researched, it’s believed that ESPN gets just over $6 per month right now for every subscriber receiving their broadcasts… which means, since several ESPN channels are part of even the most basic packages, they get just about $6 per month for every house a provider sends signals into… and under current contracts, that number will be over $8 each month by 2018.

But wait… that doesn’t even begin to tell the entire story.

One problem with the numbers I kept finding was that they didn’t reflect whether these dollar signs are for just the flagship ESPN station, or, how the differing ESPN channels are figured in. So maybe it’s one or two dollars per station… and you may be aware that not all providers offer the same packages of ESPN channels. Some offer two or three… and some offer more… with all sorts of combinations of ESPN, ESPN 2, ESPN News, ESPN University, and more possible.

Regardless though, keep that $6 figure in mind… because that extends from the idea that ESPN is usually a basic option. Sure… HBO may cost about $15 each month depending on your provider and how many subscription networks you add. (Save by bundling HBO and Starz!) But that $6 take by ESPN is, again, basically from every person ordering cable and satellite packages. HBO comes only from a portion of those.

DirecTV has just over twenty million people subscribing. (I saw those figures in a couple of places, from data taken before the AT&T merger.) HBO, on all platforms, is estimated to have about twenty-eight million subscribers. In short… add Dish, Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner, and so on… and ESPN is getting money from virtually every subscriber, not just the ones that selected them… not just the ones from DirecTV.

Almost every place I looked, estimates for what ESPN might look to receive all reached more than $30 per month.

Now, keep in mind, all of your basic channels will see some crazy price jumps. For the same reasons I watch ESPN now at times, but would almost certainly pass if I needed to order it… channels like USA, Bravo, Animal Planet, and so on would need to evaluate the new dynamics and likely charge individuals more per month than they charge providers.

That makes sense. A few pennies from everyone add up. Means even more pennies… or dollars… are necessary when being collected from fewer pockets.

The thing is… ESPN does not get my attention for that many hours each week. When I’m turning television on in the background, say for some general noise while I’m writing or working, I’m much more likely to look for reruns on TBS or a movie I’ve seen before that is playing on HBO.

And it gets worse for ESPN. Because even a show like Mike & Mike is available over the radio or online feeds. So, depending on how they adjust the delivery of their products (in short… they theoretically could hide Mike & Mike as a free broadcast and remove all places where “listen live” is a possibility), even when not subscribing to the television broadcasts, for now I could still find most of the few programs I do watch.

The essence of the question becomes this… is Monday Night Football, and the few live events they have exclusively on their network… worth the money? And I say no.

ESPN won’t sit still for that reaction though. They want our money. And so they’ll try to come up with some way on their own of packaging together all of that quality content they have available in all of their resources. You know… their archives of games, their brilliant reporting, and so on. I’ll lose all of that if I don’t subscribe, but I’ll get all of it by subscribing (and maybe even a football phone and a special championship DVD of my favorite team… you know, if people still wanted a football phone or purchased DVDs).

Problem though. At least for me.

All of the subscription necessary content has driven me away from regular use of the ESPN web site over the past five years or so… all of the sponsor themed content has driven me away from many of their shows… all of the look-at-me-screaming has me rolling my eyes.

In other words… as a general statement of the overall problem… other than my wanting to see Monday Night Football, there isn’t anything else ESPN could add so I would subscribe to avoid losing Monday Night Football. And with Sunday Night Football… Thursday Night Football… and other networks broadcasting highlights and specials and coverage, well, it’s not that big a loss today as it would have been ten years ago.

And for those at EPSN in charge of looking at the future, the scary part is I’m thinking that I’m not alone.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Should freedom of choice options actually happen, the salvation for ESPN is quite likely found in the power they have by being part of Disney, and therefor associated with ABC. In other words, there are some solid packages that could be developed. Let’s not shed any tears… people making decisions involving hundreds of millions of dollars do at least a little homework.

But that doesn’t change the idea that awareness about what programming they offer, creating the desire to see that programming, and offering something worthy of the revenue they have managed to lock up is still problematic for ESPN.

In an open market… not a setting where providers are handing over cash without a vote from subscribers… ESPN will suddenly be more accountable for the quality of their programming as compared to others. If someone is offering something better for free… or at least for far less than $30-plus each month… the audiences will find that.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com