The biggest company in the San Fernando Valley – in fact, in the entire Los Angeles area – is the Walt Disney Co. So it’s increasingly alarming to see the company continue to fumble with ESPN, which is the biggest chunk of Disney’s biggest division.
The sports channel accounted for the deeply disappointing portion of Disney’s generally disappointing earnings report last week. Subscribers have been leaking from ESPN since its peak in 2011, and lately that leak has widened. It’s not quite a screen-door-on-a-submarine kind of leak, but it’s getting there. Worse: Disney doesn’t appear to know what to do with ESPN. If you cup your ear to hear Disney’s plan for rescue, you’ll hear crickets.
Granted, a lot of ESPN’s problem isn’t Disney’s direct fault; it has to do with larger societal trends. Thanks to the internet, fans can get their sports highlights online for free. And thanks to the so-called over-the-top bundles, cable subscribers have been furiously cutting the cord. Since ESPN is the most expensive cable channel at more than $7 a month for each subscriber, it makes any cable package that includes ESPN a pricey one, making it a ripe target for cord cutters.
But some of the problems were caused by Disney and the sports channel. For one thing, ESPN keeps paying ever-larger sums for rights to broadcast games. How could they have allowed that to happen? Given the declining state of the cable industry, it is stunning that Disney and ESPN haven’t done a much smarter job of negotiating down those costs. I mean, think of all the tenants who hammered down their rents in mid-lease back in 2009 and 2010. And it’s not as if the sports leagues have all that many competitors to ESPN that could broadcast games. There’s ESPN and – what? – channel 442 and 443, maybe.
But the most dunderheaded misstep was ESPN’s decision to go political. As you well know, you can go up or down your cable listings and find plenty of channels with partisan types yelling past each other. I used to think of ESPN as a welcome respite from that; a safe place where you could stop, nestle in and learn about something newsy that specifically and pointedly wasn’t political. But alas, now you get a heavy dose of pious partisan sermonizing on ESPN, too.
Sometimes I agree with the political views of the ESPN commentators, and sometimes I don’t. It doesn’t matter. The point: there is no business reason for a sports channel to take sides in our country’s political divide, thereby frosting off one side or the other. I wonder what was said in the meeting when managers decided to veer down the partisan path. “Hey! Here’s an idea: Let’s drive off half of what remains of our subscribers!” Maybe they thought they were improving their product, but Coca-Cola chiefs thought the same thing when they proudly unveiled the disaster of New Coke.