Disney has acknowledged that its cable assets including ESPN have lost subscribers, but until last week, it didn’t say exactly how many. When Disney boss Robert Iger said back in August that ESPN had experienced “some subscriber losses,” it sent media stocks spiraling. But in a regulatory filing last week, Iger’s acknowledgement was met with little more than a whimper, but the tempered reaction was due to the fact that the news was released late on Wednesday as investors were getting away for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Iger said ESPN has lost 7 million subscribers standing now at 92 million. In 2013, ESPN was at its peak of 99 million and 95 million in 2014. Cord cutters who now depend on Hulu and Netflix for their viewing are mainly responsible for the lower numbers. And cord shavers who still subscribe to cable, but reduce to skinnier programming bundles are also seen a reason for ESPN’s lower numbers.
Other Disney-owned networks to lose subscribers in the last two years include ABC Family (5 million), Disney Channel (4 million) and Disney XD (4 million). A&E, History and Lifetime, all of which are 50% owned by Disney also saw subscriber losses.
ESPN had to lay off more than 300 people earlier this year as Disney execs ordered cuts. And as ESPN ventures into a world that is less dependent on television, we’ll see if this means that Disney will eventually make the Worldwide Leader a standalone streaming service to stem the tide of cord cutters.
But in the meantime, ESPN remains on cable and as it is the most expensive network for providers to carry, we’ll see if future contracts will become protracted carriage fights. Disney and ESPN hope that the trends of consumers dropping cable or going skinny bundle will end soon, but for now, it’s in the midst of a downturn that doesn’t appear to be ending.