Fox News covered politics as a competition in 2016. Viewers rewarded the network with the highest ratings on cable television.
ESPN depicted competition as politics in 2016. Viewers punished them by ditching their subscriptions.
Fox News averaged 2.4 million viewers in primetime, increased its audience 36 percent year-over-year, and finished 2016 behind only CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox. ESPN, which has bled almost 10 million subscribers since its peak at 99 million in 2013, lost well north of a million subscribers in the last quarter of 2016.
The same factor, politics, that explains Fox’s jump explains ESPN’s fall.
ESPN broadcast a town hall on race featuring President Barack Obama. The network turned its ESPY awards into a Black Lives Matter infomercial a year after allowing Caitlyn Jenner lecture America on transgenderism at the 2015 show. The Worldwide Leader in Sports fired Curt Schilling for re-posting an internet meme conveying that men belong in the men’s room and ditched Mike Ditka days after he called Obama the worst president in history. The network’s uniformly left-wing talking heads tripped over themselves to cheer Colin Kaepernick and boo his detractors.
Fox, on the other hand, broadcast Megyn Kelly, a Donald Trump nemesis in Republican primary debates, and Sean Hannity, viewed so favorably by Trump that he namedropped the host in a general election debate, in the next hour. Though a company lean exists at Fox, unlike ESPN, no company line does.
It’s tempting to cite Fox News’s growth and the country’s rightward shift to buttress the argument that ESPN backing the wrong horse led to its decline. But that misses the point. People watch sports to escape politics, not to encounter jock versions of MSNBC and Fox. America wants sports now more than ever. ESPN gives America frustrated political pundits haranguing its captive audience with heavy-handed political tirades.
Is it any wonder that its captive audience made a jailbreak in 2016?
The total-politics mindset that leads to a Trump bumpersticker causing a would-be Samaritan to abandon a stranded motorist and requires that bakers endorse gay marriage at the penalty of their businesses increases the demand for fare free of all that. Instead of capitalizing by filling the void, the Worldwide Leader plays follow-the-leader. They give the public more of what they seek to avoid.
ESPN needs to alter its preachy format. Instead, they seek to alter the mindset of Joe Six Pack. The more viewers find their programs grating, the more the network experiences a free fall in its nightly rating.
ESPN broadcasts to change minds. That’s why their audience changes the channel.