The monthly Nielsen cable coverage estimates always make for interesting reading, and Sports TV Ratings‘ Robert Seidman has once again provided them (along with some valuable insights on how big the cable universe still remains, and how this latest month’s drops don’t represent the average month drop and look better compared to a year ago). That context is awfully important this time around, as this month was awfully dire for many sports networks.
Here’s our standard table of this data for sports networks, complete with columns for the change since February 2017 and the change since last month. All numbers represent thousands of homes estimated to have the channel. (For the networks where we don’t have February 2017 data, the final column represents the May 2018 numbers minus the oldest data we have for them. And as always, it’s a perfectly cromulent option to click to embiggen.)
It’s particularly notable here that sports networks were hit across the board. Not a single sports network saw an increase in estimated coverage from April to May. Now, that’s not exclusive to sports, as most other networks fell too; the only two to post positive change from April to May were Fuse (up 1,041 thousand homes) and Justice Central (up 2,921 thousand), which speaks to some wider cord-cutting. In fact, the traditional cable-plus homes were estimated to fall from 94,070,000 to 93,367,000 over that span, a drop of 703,000, and the total multichannel homes (Nielsen’s estimate that includes those who subscribe to streaming bundles alone) fell from 96,803,000 to 96,272,000, a drop of 531,000.
But, with that said, some sports networks suffered greater losses than others. In particular, this was a bad month for NFL Network, down 842,000 homes. That’s likely related to Comcast moving the network to a less popular tier, but it’s certainly notable. MLB Network (down 664,000 homes), Big Ten Network (down 614,000, also probably partly thanks to a fight with Comcast), Golf Channel (down 505,000), The Tennis Channel (down 476,000), and NBA TV (down 330,000) were hit hard too. It’s not a great time out there for league or sport-specific networks.
It’s also not a great time for national networks. ESPN (-500,000), FS1 (-328,000), NBCSN (-544,000), TBS (-490,000), and TNT (-495,000) were all hit hard too. And that’s perhaps especially concerning considering that it’s prime playoff time for NBCSN (the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs), as well as ESPN and TNT (the NBA playoffs). These are not out-of-season drops, but drops at a time while those networks have some of their best content. So there are certainly some things to worry about there.
As Seidman notes, though, more informative comparisons may come from looking back a year or more to see the larger picture. His post compares networks to their May 2017 numbers, which suggest that the last month-by-month data for the likes of ESPN, FS1, and NBCSN is not likely to repeat every month. And yes, there are still some concerning numbers for these networks if you go back to last May or last February, with ESPN (down 1,596,000 homes) and FS1 (down 1,233,000) both taking notable hits over that latter timeframe, but it’s not like they’re losing 500,000 or even 328,000 subscribers every single month. (The drops of over 5 million subscribers in that timeframe for Golf Channel, MLBN, and NBA TV are certainly worrying, though.) And ESPN is still well above the 75 million threshold Seidman figures will cause them to offer a full over-the-top service (as compared to ESPN+’s supplemental service), so it’s not necessarily time to sound all-hands-on-deck alarms for the national networks.
The key conclusions from this data are perhaps twofold. For one thing, the landscape is becoming extremely difficult for league, sport-specific, or conference-specific networks, and at least part of that seems to be about a growing shift to streaming or cable “skinny” bundles. It looks like there are lots of people willing to buy packages that include the likes of ESPN, FS1, and NBCSN, but don’t necessarily have all the league or conference networks. (Comcast’s moves here to remove or boost the tier of BTN and NFLN are a significant factor as well.) And if these networks don’t offer games that are compelling to huge masses of subscribers, that’s likely to remain the case.
But beyond that, there are certainly concerns for the national networks as well. If the year-over-year trend continues at its current level, that’s probably okay for them; it’s not great, but it’s not disastrous. But if the April to May change winds up being a larger indication of the modern climate, that should get a lot of people worrying. ESPN, for example, is probably okay losing around 1.6 million subscribers from last February through now; that’s not great, but it’s also not a cord-cutting apocalypse, especially with them laying off tons of talent to lower costs and getting additional revenue from ESPN+. But losing 500,000 subscribers every single month would be disastrous for them, as that would be 6 million in the course of a year and 7.5 million in a 15-month span (like February 2017 through now). So those in Bristol will certainly be hoping that this month’s data isn’t a larger trend, and their counterparts at other national networks will be joining in.