For all of the talk about ESPN's sky-high cost to cable companies, which they in return, pass on to the customer, cable operators viewed ESPN as having the most perceived value among all networks – for the thirteenth straight year. In addition, ESPN was ranked as the most important network (for the ninth straight year), and 95% of operators viewed ESPN as "very important" when it comes to customer retention and acquisition.
In recent days and weeks, ESPN's cost to operators has come under fire. Dish Network sued ESPN, and the judgment they won was a drop in the bucket in comparison to ESPN's revenues, signaling this isn't going to be coming to an end any time soon. As long as cable companies continue to value ESPN so highly, they're going to continue to be willing to pay the subscriber fees ESPN wants, and pass the cost along to the consumer.
But this raises an interesting question for the future: how much does the customer actually value ESPN? Sure, the providers *perceive* that ESPN has the most value among all networks… but how much value does it actually have? For example, with the NFL and MLB out of season right now, is there really much value to ESPN in the eyes of the consumers? Last week, ESPN put just one show in the top 25 cable broadcasts: a matchup of top five teams in Indiana and Michigan State. They had none of the top 25 cable programs in the prior two weeks. They also haven't been in the top five cable networks in primetime over the last three weeks either, falling behind networks like TBS, TNT, USA, Fox News, History, AMC, and even Disney, depending on the week.
Even during the football season, ESPN really only makes the top 25 with Monday Night Football and occasionally, the SportsCenter episode following the game. College football and NASCAR occasionally slip in to the bottom of the weekly rankings, but they fare nowhere near as consistently well as Monday Night Football, The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, WWE Raw, the endless parade of non-historical History reality shows, and even Spongebob marathons on Nickelodeon. Don't even get me started on the summer, where ESPN is carried by NASCAR and hoping and praying a good MLB game draws some nice ratings.
And that's my main question with this survey. What would the majority of cable customers prefer happen: your provider drops ESPN and ESPN2 and your bill drops by five bucks a month, or your provider drops TNT, TBS, FX, and USA, and your bill drops by two bucks a month? Both situations would be huge shifts in the way providers operate, and would cause ripples throughout the industry for very different reasons. Taking a stand against the highest priced network (ESPN) would have a major effect on what consumers watch during the fall, and in brief pockets throughout the rest of the year. Taking a stand against a bunch of networks that have solid ratings year-round, but combined cost half as much to the provider as ESPN, would probably end up being a worse move at the end of the day. Perhaps ESPN's value is rated so highly because of its monopoly over televised sports, whereas there's no one network as powerful as ESPN in the entertainment world.