I’m going to date myself by saying this, but this whole internet-changing-the-media-landscape thing isn’t my first rodeo. It’s the second media revolution in my lifetime.
I was born in the early 1970s, when cable TV began its meteoric rise, and the industry went from three major networks (and PBS, of course) to an explosion of cable programming choices like MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN and HBO. One of those pioneering networks was ESPN, the first 24-7 sports network. Dubbing itself “The Worldwide Leader in Sports,” it was exactly that, for nearly three decades. The core demographic – men 18-49 – fell in love, and the network quickly became a cultural icon. It wasn’t long before ESPN was the carrot at the end of the stick for cable providers. If you wanted your sports, you had to buy the ESPN package, which included a gaggle of other networks you didn’t even care about.
That model exists to this day, but with the rise of digital, ESPN is struggling to stake out a position of strength in a chaotic new media environment. The Worldwide Leader is making some very smart moves…and one really dumb one.
POLITICS OR DIGITAL DISRUPTION?
Last week, ESPN laid off over 100 employees, many of them prominent anchors, reporters, and analysts. The internet immediately erupted with a two-sided debate about what caused this sudden fall from grace.
One side blamed ESPN’s programming decisions over the past few years that transformed the network into a cultural mouthpiece for left-wing viewpoints. The opposing side argued that cord-cutting, rising costs of broadcast rights for live sports, and declining subscriptions were the cause.
For the record, I’m mostly with the second group. The numbers are impossible to ignore:
- ESPN has lost more than 10 million subscribers since its peak in 2011, in large part due to cord-cutting and instant-gratification news consumption on any number of devices.
- Disney (ESPN’s parent company) reported an 11 percent drop in income in its most recent quarter, almost all of it attributed to ESPN.
- In 2011, ESPN inked an eight-year, $15.2 billion dollar deal with the NFL, a nine-year, $12 billion deal with the NBA, and a $7.3 billion deal for the college football playoffs. That’s a lot of bills to pay.
So there it is, costs are up, income is down. I could blame it on simple economics, drop the mic and call it a day. Except, I can’t. Because my generation made ESPN what it is, and now my generation is the one ESPN forgot.
I DON’T EVEN KNOW YOU ANYMORE
The fact is, when I want to hear about sports, I want to hear about SPORTS. In its quest to be all things to all people, ESPN has lost that focus. My personal viewership of the network has dropped dramatically, in large part because I’m sick and tired of the new emphasis on schmaltzy, tug-at-your-heartstrings content and constant political debate about cultural topics.
There’s no question that there’s room for cultural and political discussions in sports programming. Tell me about the issues surrounding acceptance of the LGBT community in sports. Let’s talk openly about racial inequality and recognize that issues in sports often reflect many of the problems of society at large. Yes, please give me an occasional warm and fuzzy docu-segment about the boy with turrets who made 1st team All-American at Notre Dame.
But for crying out loud, can you talk about last night’s game once in awhile?!
Linda Cohn, one of the network’s longest tenured and most respected anchors, recently told the Washington Post, “I felt that the old school viewers were put in a corner and not appreciated with all these other changes. And they forgot their core. You can never forget your core…” When she was asked if there’s a “distaste among viewers for the programming decisions,” she replied, “I don’t know how big a percentage, but if anyone wants to ignore that fact, then they’re blind.”
CHANGE WITH THE TIMES, BUT DON’T FORGET WHO YOU ARE
Let me tell you something ESPN. If all goes well, I’ve got a good 40 years of sports viewing ahead of me. Meanwhile, people my age tend to have more disposable income to buy the products you advertise. Trust me, you don’t want to lose us. So go ahead, put more emphasis in digital. Reach out to newer, younger audiences. Be a voice for cultural issues as they relate to sports. Bring in reporters and analysts with fresh viewpoints, and cut some of the old, dead weight. Many of the moves you’re making are necessary for long-term success, even if they’re painful in the short term.
Just do yourself a favor. Transform, but don’t change who you are. You’re a sports network, for sports fans. Stop trying to be CNN, Lifetime, A&E and the Hallmark Channel. Be ESPN.