The collapse of the (politicized) sports bubble is getting more evident, as the devastation in cord-cutting was revealed in Disney's annual earnings report. It showed ESPN lost 2 million domestic subscribers over the last year, with its base audience decreasing from 88 million in 2017 to 86 million in fiscal 2018.
The hemorrhaging was not only sports-related, but Disney Channel, Disney Junior, and Disney XD all lost 3 million subs, while Freeform shed about 2 million, said Variety, an American entertainment trade magazine.
As Variety notes, Disney is among many other media giants experiencing the destructive forces of the cord-cutting trend.
Nielsen Media Research indicates that cord-cutters are migrating to a virtual multichannel video programming distributor (vMVPD), a service that provides multiple television channels through the internet, such as YouTube Live, Hulu with Live TV, Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, and Netflix.
ESPN and Disney have been the barometer of the pay-TV marketplace given their industry-leading status.
To stem the losses, Disney has a contingency plan in the form of ESPN+, an over-the-top video streaming subscription service that offers live and archived sports streams from regional networks, excluding any local blackouts, for a $5 add-on fee. The extra-service has been a grand slam for the dying media company, attracting nearly one million subs in the first five months.
During Disney’s earnings announcement earlier this month, execs told investors some good news: the rate of subscriber declines slowed between 2017 and 2018, to a drop of 2% compared to 3% between 2016 and 2017.
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We recently highlighted that it was not just Disney or most of the large media cable companies that are "cratering": streaming TV growth has also slowed and recent trends have been ominous. Dish's Sling TV signed up just 26,000 new subscribers in the third quarter after attracting 41,000 in the previous three months and 91,000 prior to that. In aggregate, the company lost 341,000 customers in the third quarter. DirecTV Now added 49,000 subscribers last quarter after signing up 342,000 customers in the prior three months.
Sling TV and Direct TV Now have seen subscribers stall in 2018
YouTube TV added about 100,000 customers over the past two quarters, after signing up 125,000 in the first quarter of this year. Hulu attracted 175,000 new viewers last quarter after signing up 200,000 in the two quarters prior to that, according to estimates.
In short: growth has hit a wall, even for these consumer-friendly services.
Meanwhile, the "unthinkable" scenario of super-saturation - or simply just more debt-laden Americans on a budget that need to cut back - linger as an obvious explanation for the recent peak in growth.