Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Growing Reality Of A La Carte ESPN

Or, Well, Not
A slowly rising tide is still a tide, and even though this one has taken years to develop, it's still going to make for a lot of wet feet.

Or, to be less esoteric... have you noticed how ESPN seems to be shedding creative staff of anyone with more than a trace amount of the uppity? (Here's a link if you don't believe me.)

Keith Olbermann's contract won't be renewed. Bill Simmons was axed months ago, in a remarkably public bit of asshattery. There's been no new signings to replace either voice of note. The NYC studios that Olbermann used, and that Mike & Mike were supposed to be moving to, gone; costs will be contained at the Bristol campus instead. Sure, there's the inevitable set design overloads for SportsCenter, and an embarrassment of talking heads on pre-game studio shows, but otherwise, the World Wide Lemur is starting to seem, well, more and more cheap.

Why?

Well, because they are part of a vast media conglomerate, and if ABC has a poor fall season, or people stop going to Disney's theme parks, or a few movies tank, Something Has To Give. But more importantly, it's because the bedrock economics of ESPN are slowly starting to change, and really not in a good way for the network.

Let's speak plainly about this: ESPN benefits from a fairly blatant case of class-action level chicanery. The vast majority of cable TV subscribers pay the network more than they pay any other property, whether they ever watch it or not. By some estimates, an ESPN-only subscription, in a world where pricing for that product was a la carte, would be somewhere in the realm of $35 to $40 a month. (Basically, only something like one of out every 8 people who have cable watch the channel.)

Now, this is true of a vast majority of cable channels in today's increasingly outmoded bundle situation... but just because people have put up with this for decades, does not mean it will continue in perpetuity. With more and more league-only content being produced by the NFL, NBA and MLB, there's also an increasing amount of distance from those properties to the Lemur.

This isn't an immediate crisis. It's just the continuation of a long trend. People buy single from musical artists, not albums with filler. They download apps from the properties that matter to them, one at a time. They cut out middlemen with online e-commerce plays, And so on, and so on. Efficiencies of economy, especially when a cable bill can easily hit triple figures per month, do not get reversed. If you were starting cable TV as a business today, there's no way you could get away with the bundle. It just wouldn't fly.

And when ESPN has to go out on its own, and lose all of that sweet passive patronage from the hordes of people who, well, don't care about sports?

Well, I don't like the odds of any senior staff keeping their current salaries. And, eventually, a number of those side channels and esoterica. Do you?

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