Poll: ESPN Barely Ranks in Top 20 of Most Chosen A La Carte Cable Channels

Dish Network
The Associated Press

Cable subscribers have spoken, and if you’re ESPN you will not like what they had to say.

The study from Digitalsmiths, a company owned by TiVo, asked consumers to rank their hypothetical choices of cable networks if they could select them a la carte. Though cable subscribers do not currently select channels in this way, the results of the study still pose huge issues for ESPN and other sports channels.

According to the study, “In the U.S., ABC was the most popular choice (65.8%), CBS was second (63.5%), Discovery Channel was third (61.8%), NBC was fourth (61%) and History Channel was fifth (56%).”

While the overall study is good news for Disney, with ABC ranking first among all channels in the a la carte study, Disney’s sports wing, ESPN, did not rank in the top 10, nor did they rank in top 15. In fact, ESPN barely notched a spot in top 20, coming in at number 19 among most desirable networks, with 41. 3% of respondents naming the sports network their first choice.

In fairness, other sports networks lagged far behind in this study as well. According to Awful Announcing, “FS1 was the next sports network coming in at position 33, NFL Network was 36th while NBCSN was 38th. The next sports network in the survey is MLB Network at number 56. Golf Channel was 66th, Sportsman Channel was at number 68 and the last sports network on the survey was Tennis Channel which was 77th.”

However, when you consider that ESPN had a 30-year head start on nearly every other sports network on cable, those numbers aren’t that surprising, and could, specifically in the case of the relatively new FS1, even be considered impressive.

But what to take from all this? Clearly, sports programming isn’t valued among those making these a la carte selections. Whether or not these choices accurately represent the population as a whole, or whether they’re the result of a particular survey that just doesn’t care for sports, remains unknown.

If they do accurately represent the population, this poll is nothing short of a disaster for cable sports network providers.

However, the poll remains a far worse result for ESPN than it does any other sports offering. ESPN charges the most each month per cable customer by far, and those numbers don’t even account for secondary ESPN networks like ESPN2, which by themselves rank among the most expensive channels on cable. The Disney-owned company must charge that amount in order to pay the exorbitant costs of the live sports programming demanded by the leagues.

Being among the least valued, yet most expensive products in your industry is not a position any business would want to find themselves in. Yet, that’s exactly where ESPN finds itself.

So, where has ESPN lost its value with subscribers? While there’s rarely ever one reason that explains the apparent collapse of a monopoly that’s dominated the sports cable world for more than a generation, ESPN hasn’t lost value with its live sports programming. The numbers for college and NBA games on the network have actually seen increases over last year.

Instead, ESPN has lost value with its commentary and opinion programming. SportsCenter’s numbers have fallen, as have the numbers on ESPN2 which frequently hosts several of the network’s most opinionated talk shows, those known for expressing their opinions on politics as much as sports.

Subscribers have shown a willingness to watch ESPN for the games that appear on the network, but seem less inclined to watch the opinion and analysis, perhaps because that opinion and analysis frequently swerves into politics. Last November, ESPN’s ombudsman wrote a lengthy piece, concerned that the network had become too liberal in their commentary shows.

This, at a time when the commentary shows have dragged down ESPN’s ratings. Could that leftward lurch have something to do with why viewers in this study value ESPN so little?

Someone should really look into that.

Follow Dylan Gwinn on Twitter: @themightygwinn