In the immediate aftermath, accusations began to fly about why the almighty ESPN had to lay off employees. Many blame ESPN’s struggles on a perceived liberal bias pushing conservative-minded viewers away and for too often dipping their toes into “politics” (i.e. topics that some people are uncomfortable discussing but that may or may not actually have any direct ties to real politics).
Isaac Chitin of Slate did a Q&A with James Andrew Miller, author of “Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside the World of ESPN,” and asked him about the layoffs and the liberal-bias theory. Miller was blunt in dismissing it.
Some people have suggested that this is a response to viewer complaints about liberal personalities at ESPN —
Those people are smoking crack.
Do you want to say more?
It’s just ridiculous. There is no connective tissue between the two. I spend every day watching, thinking, studying, analysing ESPN. I don’t see it at all.
Of course, there are degrees here. There are almost certainly some viewers who ditched ESPN after they fired Curt Schilling or because they don’t want to hear commentators discussing Caitlin Jenner or whether or not Boston’s reputation as a racist city is still deserved.
ESPN’s Linda Cohn, in an interview with the Washington Post, stated flatly that the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports” has alienated some of their “old school viewers.”
“I felt that the old school viewers were put in a corner and not appreciated with all these other changes,” Cohn told the Post. “And they forgot their core. You can never forget your core and be grateful for your core group.”
Cohn was asked if she feels there is a “distaste among viewers for the programming decisions.”
“I don’t know how big a percentage,” she said. “But if anyone wants to ignore that fact, then they’re blind.”
But there is still no evidence that ESPN’s ratings have fallen in any dramatic way and even less evidence that a liberal bias has caused the ratings to drop enough to warrant layoffs.
Many point to ESPN’s loss of approximately 12 million subscribers, a drop of 12% in just six years. But while that has certainly caused a drop in revenue, there is no evidence that those people are ditching cable entirely just because they have decided to stop watching ESPN. In fact, most of those people are almost certainly cord-cutters who were just tired of paying for networks they weren’t watching, networks like ESPN, who charges cable subscribers over $US9 per month whether they watch or not.
Still, ESPN is not without problems.
As Cohn also noted, ESPN did overpay for a number of their television contracts. Those came in recent years and were likely an overreaction to newcomers like Fox Sports 1 and NBCSN as live sports is behind most of ESPN’s success.
Their flagship program, “SportsCenter,” has been struggling for years because fewer and fewer people need sports highlights shows. Many of the layoffs were tied to “SportsCenter” as the network continues to try to both save the show and re-invent it at the same time for a modern audience.
Meanwhile, debate shows like “First Take,” have been a ratings hit for ESPN, but that fervor has not translated well to revenue because advertisers have grown wary of associating with the latest controversial takes. There is also a growing feeling that ESPN has reached a saturation point on debate-based programming.
In the meantime, ESPN’s ratings are still strong, they are still making a lot of money, they are still the king of sports television without rival, and the person who literally wrote the book on the network says politics has nothing to do with the layoffs.
“Bad things are happening to good people,” Miller told Slate. “These people had the misfortune of working for the company at a time when it is trying to make a rather significant paradigm shift in terms of its strategy for content.”
ESPN primetime viewership +9% in April vs. April 2016. Total-day (24-hour basis) viewership -2%. FS1 primetime in April -24%. Total-day -15%
— Austin Karp (@AustinKarp) May 2, 2017
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