The Fall Of ESPN

Is ESPN the Blockbuster of broadcast TV?

Those of you who are over, say, 35 probably remember Blockbuster.  It was the place where you went to buy, or rent, new video releases.  For a time in the ’90s, you couldn’t go to any suburban strip shopping center without seeing a busy Blockbuster store thronging with people eager to get their hands on the new releases.  But then . . . things changed.  New methods of getting entertainment delivered directly to our houses were developed that made going to the Blockbuster store seem inconvenient, and expensive, and clunky, and kind of a pain in the ass.  And before you knew it, all of those Blockbuster stores were gone.

sc2ESPN seems to be following the same path.  From the new station that padded its programming with weird sports events like Australian rules football games, ESPN grew into a glitzy, multi-channel cable TV megaplayer that had an enormous impact on the sports segment of American culture.  Athletes would make a great play and mimic the Sportscenter theme song, hoping that their play would be broadcast on that nightly highlights show.  ESPN broadcast anchors became celebrities.  In 2011, ESPN had 100 million cable TV subscribers.

But then . . . things changed.  ESPN is down to 88 million subscribers, and those numbers continue to decline.  Ratings are down, and the channel has had to make some very public layoffs of some of its familiar on-air talent.  Even this NFL draft weekend, when the coverage on ESPN used dominate the sports conversation, ESPN doesn’t seem to be quite so significant anymore.  Why is this happening?  In part, it’s because people are giving up on standard cable TV in favor of watching content on the internet.  Cable TV packages are expensive, and watching events on the internet is free.  So why sign up for increasingly expensive cable TV programming with a standard package filled with channels that you don’t watch, when you can save that money and watch what you want on the internet?

Doesn’t that sound familiar, in a Blockbuster kind of way?

There are other proffered reasons for ESPN’s decline — the high salaries it pays on-air talent, the rising cost of obtaining broadcast rights for sports events, and even the theory that ESPN has increasingly injected “liberal” political views into its broadcasts, irritating sports fans with more conservative political views — but I think the real reason is the cultural change in people’s viewing habits.  When cultural shifts occur, companies can go from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the ditch in a hurry.

Who knows?  In a few years, even that iconic Sportcenter theme song might be as forgotten as the once-familiar Blockbuster logo.

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Weighing The Different TV And Internet Options

We’ll be moving into our new house in a few weeks, and one of the key impending decisions for us is:  what to do about TV and internet coverage?

At our old house we went with cable-based service provided by Time Warner.  Our TV and internet coverage was generally reliable, but it was expensive and we really grew to dislike — actually, “hate” is more accurate — Time Warner and its employees’ collective attitude about customer service.  They seemed to revel in making us jump through stupid hoops for no apparent reason.  We won’t go back to TW because we know we’ll just end up infuriated.  WOW is the other cable provider in Columbus, but its on-line reviews seem extremely mixed — it’s great or it’s awful, with not much in between.

IMG_4686The second option is a satellite service.  Our new house already has a dish on the roof.  I think it for DirecTV, but I haven’t paid attention because I don’t like the idea of a dish on my roof.  Now I think it needs to be considered as an alternative.  However, satellite services seem to only provide TV and “partner” with another company to offer internet — which just means, apparently, that we’ll have to deal with two providers rather than one.

A third option is AT&T U-Verse “internet TV,” which would provide one-stop internet and TV.  The house we’re staying in now has it and we haven’t had any service problems, but the TV offerings are limited and don’t include some of the “basic cable” channels that we’ve come to like, such as the Big Ten Network.  Of course, that may just be a matter of getting a different package.  The more high-end TV channels, too, aren’t simple to get to and involve juggling multiple remotes.

And the final option is:  only internet service and no TV.  Since we’ve been at this house, I’ve gone for days without watching any TV.  We’ve got friends who’ve forsaken TV and seem perfectly content.  Maybe that’s an option — but I think we’d regret it when the next seasons of Game of Thrones and The Leftovers start and I want to watch a football game.

We want to make an informed decision in selecting among a confusing array of choices.  I’d be very interested in any thoughts on these options, and particularly in personal experiences with WOW, DirecTV or Dish, and AT&T U-Verse.

Trying To Find The Game

One other thing about today’s Ohio State-Navy game that is nettlesome:  it’s symptomatic of another unfortunate, entirely money-driven aspect of big-time sports, because it’s being shown only on a cable channel that many systems don’t carry.

When I first looked up the venue for the game, I saw that it was on the CBS Sports Network — which I equate with CBS and channel 10 on my cable network.  Wrong!  The CBS Sports Network is a separate channel.  If you live in the Columbus area and have Time-Warner cable, the CBS Sports Network is part of the sports station package and can be found at channel 531.  If you don’t have that package, you’re out of luck and can watch U.S. Open Tennis on the CBS network instead. 

Fortunately, I’ve got the package and will be able to watch the game.  But the movement of games to remote television venues is here to stay and probably will get worse.  It’s a way for networks to multiply their revenue streams, it’s a way for channels to put pressure on cable providers, and it’s a way for cable providers to get more money from subscribers who desperately want to watch their favorite teams play.  If having Ohio State on the CBS Sports Network, or having the Cleveland Browns on the NFL Network, once a year causes fans to subscribe to broader channel packages beyond the “basic cable” offerings, that’s great news for everyone in the chain but the poor fan. 

But when it comes to sports these days, it’s all about the money.

Cable Companies Come, Cable Companies Go

News reports state that Comcast plans to buy Time Warner Cable. If the deal goes through, the new, combined company would control about 75 percent of the cable television market in the United States.

IMG_1771I should care about this, I guess, because Time Warner Cable is our cable provider. I had to check to confirm that, because our cable provider was a company called Insight Communications. I know this because our remote control has the Insight name on it. But sometime in 2012, Time Warner bought Insight Communications, and the contract with the Webner household went along with it. I’m pretty sure that we’ve had other cable providers, too, before Insight.

When these corporate acquisitions occur, companies typically run TV commercials that say something like “Slackjaw Communications is now Birdseed One!” The ads have to use an exclamation point, because otherwise viewers might just shrug their shoulders and miss the point that this is tremendously exciting, groundbreaking news. Usually the ads also promise that we’ll be amazed by the change and the news services we’ll receive. Then months pass, nothing changes, and we’ve still got the same old remote control unit we had under the old company.

If the Comcast purchase of Time Warner Cable goes through, we’ll see a new set of those exclamation point ads. For us, though, cable service is almost like a utility. Whether it’s Comcast or Time Warner Cable or Insight Communications or Birdseed One, we just want to have our high-speed internet without interruption and make sure that HBO and basic cable are available on our TV set. I’ll start caring about the name of the company that supplies these basic services if they start screwing up.

A Pox On Both Their Houses

Keith Olbermann was a lightning rod of sorts when he hosted Countdown on MSNBC.  A judgmental liberal firebrand, Olbermann left MSNBC early last year under curious circumstances and promptly moved Countdown to Current TV, a network founded in part by former Vice President Al Gore.

Then Olbermann dropped off the face of the Earth, because no one watches Current TV.  Countdown averaged 177,000 viewers a night — a miniscule fraction of the total audience in a nation of hundreds of millions of rabid TV watchers.

It was predictable that Olbermann and Current TV would part ways, and probably not in an amicable fashion.  That has turned out to be the case.  Olbermann has sued the cable channel for millions of dollars, claiming that its production capabilities were akin to those found on local community access channels.  Current TV has counterclaimed, contending that Olbermann didn’t show up for work, promote the network, or perform other purported contractual obligations.

It’s hard to believe that anyone — even the 177,000 or so people who watched Countdown on Current TV, for reasons known only to them and their deity — care about this dispute or the fact that Olbermann is off the air.  Who needs another “point of view” cable channel or egotistical broadcaster eager to castigate those with different viewpoints?  We’ve got quite enough of both, already.

The Most Popular Game In Town

In the current “fall season” — to the extent such a thing even exists anymore — 13 of the 14 most-watched TV shows have been NFL games.  The only non-NFL program that makes the top 15 is Two and a Half Men.

Why is the NFL so popular?  For one thing, it’s the perfect American game.  The NFL emphasizes speed, color, and violence — lots of violence — with a few cheerleaders thrown in.  It’s an exciting game (at least it is if you aren’t watching the Browns), filled with crackling big hits and spinning runs and tremendous athleticism that get the blood pounding.  And lately the NFL has gotten savvier.  It’s marketed to men and women, and to every demographic type.  I’m sure the marketing effort has contributed to the popularity of pro football, too.

But there is one other thing that has given pro football a big edge over the regular network programming.  The programming wizards at CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox have to worry about competition from HBO, Showtime, TNT, AMC, and many other cable channels that produce original sitcoms and dramas and reality shows — precisely the kind of programming that you used to be able to see only on network TV.  The NFL, by contrast, has no competition.

HBO isn’t going to out out and create a new pro football league to compete with Monday Night Football.  If you want to watch pro football — and millions of Americans crave it every autumn weekend — the NFL is the only game in town, regardless of which channel it is broadcast on.