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.
ESPN 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.