ESPN: What the heck just happened … and who’s to blame?

Last week, ESPN announced the layoffs of some 100 staffers, most of them on-air talent. This comes after layoffs of ~300 other personnel in 2015, but since those were behind-the-scenes employees, the news didn’t seem as momentous.

There are several factors coming together that make life particularly difficult for the sports network. One big problem is the commitment ESPN has made to pay top-dollar for the right to air professional sports events, particularly NFL and NBA games.

These financial commitments are set in stone and are made well into the future, which means that ESPN is committed to high long-term fixed costs (broadcast rights) in exchange for what’s turning out to be declining variable revenues (viewer subscription fees and advertising).

This isn’t a very good financial model at all.

Which brings us to the second big factor: declining subscribers.

Since 2011, the network has lost ~15 million subscribers. So far in 2017, the network has experienced an average loss of ~10,000 people per day.

The financial impact of these losses is significant. All of those lost subscribers amounts to more than $1.3 billion per year in money that’s no longer going on ESPN’s books.

Sports journalist Clay Travis predicts that if the current trajectory of subscriber losses continues, ESPN will begin losing money in 2021. (And that’s assuming the subscriber base losses don’t accelerate, an assumption that might be a little too rosy.)

The fundamental question is why so many people are no longer subscribing to ESPN. The predictable answer is because services like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon, with their on-demand services, are squeezing cable/satellite TV and its subscription business model.

One way Disney (ESPN’s parent company) has attempted to maximize viewer subscription revenues over the years has been by bundling the network with other, less lucrative Disney media properties like the History Channel, Vice, Disney Junior and the Lifetime Movie Network. In the Disney constellation of channels, ESPN has been the acknowledged “driver” of subscription revenues all along, with die-hard sports fans being willing to subsidize the other Disney channels – often never watched by these subscribers – as the price of access.

But something else is happening now:  ESPN itself has begun to lose viewers as well.

According to television industry publication Broadcasting & Cable, ESPN’s viewership rating has declined ~7% so far this year.  ESPN2’s rating is down even further – an eye-popping ~34%.

Percentages like those aren’t driven by “sidebar” incidental factors. Instead, they cut to the core of the programming and the content that’s being offered.

If there’s one programming factor that’s tracked nearly on point with ESPN’s viewership declines, it’s been the explosion in “sports-talk” programming versus actual “sports game” programming at the network. As Townhall opinion journalist Sean Davis has written:

“If you talk to sports fans and to people who have watched ESPN religiously for most of their lives, they’ll tell you that the problem is the lack of sports and a surplus of shows featuring people screaming at each other. The near-universal sentiment … is that the content provider sidelined actual sports in favor of carnival barkers.”

Davis points out the flaw in ESPN’s shift in colorful terms:

“ESPN went from the worldwide leader in sports to yet another expensive network of dumb people yelling dumb things at other dumb people, all the while forgetting that the most popular entertainment of people yelling about sports stuff for several hours a day – sports talk radio – is free.”

There’s an additional factor in the mix that’s a likely culprit in ESPN’s tribulations – the mixing of sports and politics. That programming decision has turned out to be a great big lightning rod for the network – with more downside than upside consequences.

The question is, why did ESPN even go in that direction?

Most likely, ESPN execs saw the tough numbers on higher costs, subscriber losses and lower ratings, and decided that it needed a larger content pie to attract more consumers.

The reasoning goes, if some people like sports and others like politics, why not combine the two to attract a larger audience, thereby changing the trajectory of the figures?

But that reasoning flies in the face of how people consume political news. In the era of Obama and now Trump, political diehards gravitate to outlets that reinforce their own worldviews:  conservatives want news from conservatives; liberals want news from liberals.

MSNBC and the Fox News Channel have figured this out big-time.

But if you’re starting with a cross-partisan mass media audience for sports, as the original ESPN audience most certainly was, trying to combine that with politics means running the risk of losing one-half of your audience.

That’s what’s been happening with ESPN. Intertwining sports with coverage about bathrooms in North Carolina, transgender sports stars, gun control laws and proper national anthem etiquette only gets your numbers going in one direction (down).

The question for ESPN is how it plans to recalibrate and refocus its programming to truly defend its position as the worldwide leader in sports broadcasting. However it decides to position itself in terms of the delivery of its content – television, online, subscription, pay-per-view or other methods – it should refocus on covering live sports events.

Not sports talk … not debate … not politics or sociology, but the sports themselves.

At one time, not so long ago, sports were a safe refuge from politics and the news. ESPN would do itself – and its viewers – a favor if it sought to recapture that spirit.

Is the Phenomenon of “Fake News” Overhyped?

fnIn the wake of recent election campaigns and referenda in places like the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Austria and the Philippines, it seems that everyone’s talking about “fake news” these days.

People all across the political and socio-economic spectrum are questioning whether the publishing and sharing of “faux” news items is having a deleterious impact on public opinion and actually changing the outcome of consequential events.

The exact definition of the term is difficult to discern, as some people are inclined to level the “fake news” charge against anyone with whom they disagree.

Beyond this, I’ve noticed that some people assign nefarious motives – political or otherwise – to the dissemination of all such news stories.  Often the motive is different, however, as over-hyped headlines – many of them having nothing to do with politics or public policy but instead focusing on celebrities or “freak” news events – serve as catnip-like clickbait for viewers who can’t resist their curiosity to find out more.

From the news consumer’s perspective, the vast majority of people think they can spot “fake” news stories when they encounter them. A recent Pew survey found that ~40% of respondents felt “very confident” knowing whether a news story is authentic, and another ~45% felt “somewhat confident” of that fact.

But how accurate are those perceptions really? A recent survey from BuzzFeed and Ipsos Public Affairs found that people who use Facebook as their primary source of news believed fake news headlines more than eight out of ten times.

That’s hardly reassuring.

And to underscore how many people are using Facebook versus more traditional news outlets as a “major” source for their news, this BuzzFeed chart showing the Top 15 information sources says it all:

  • CNN: ~27% of respondents use as a “major source” of news
  • Fox News: ~27%
  • Facebook: ~23%
  • New York Times: ~18%
  • Google News: ~17%
  • Yahoo News: ~16%
  • Washington Post: ~12%
  • Huffington Post: ~11%
  • Twitter: ~10%
  • BuzzFeed News: ~8%
  • Business Insider: ~7%
  • Snapchat: ~6%
  • Drudge Report: ~5%
  • Vice: ~5%
  • Vox: ~4%

Facebook’s algorithm change in 2016 to emphasize friends’ posts over publishers’ has turned that social platform into a pretty big hotbed of fake news activity, as people can’t resist sharing even the most outlandish stories to their network of friends.

Never mind Facebook’s recent steps to change the dynamics by sponsoring fact-checking initiatives and banning fraudulent websites from its ad network; by the accounts I’ve read, it hasn’t done all that much to curb the orgy of misinformation.

Automated ad buying isn’t helping at all either, as it’s enabling the fake news “ecosystem” big-time. As Digiday senior editor Lucia Moses explains it:

“One popular method … is tapping the competitive market for native ad widgets. Taboola, Revcontent, Adblade and Content.ad are prominently displayed on sites identified with fake news, while there are a few retargeted and programmatic ads sprinkled in. Publishers install these native ad widgets with a simple snippet of code — typically after an approval process — and when readers click on paid links in the widget, the host publisher makes money.  The ads are made to appear like related-content suggestions and often promote sensational headlines and direct-marketing offers.”

So attempting to solve the “fake news” problem is a lot more complicated than some people might realize – and it certainly isn’t going to improve because of any sort of “political” change of heart. Forrester market analyst Susan Bidel sums it up thus:

“While steps taken by … entities to curb fake news are admirable, as long as fake news generators can make money from their efforts, the problem won’t go away.”

So there we are. Bottom-line, fake news is going to be with us for the duration – whether people like it or not.

What about you? Do you think you can spot every fake news story?  Or do you think at least of few of them come in below radar?

“Dying on the Vine”: Why the video sharing service is now history.

vineRemember back in 2012 when Twitter introduced its Vine video sharing service?

Back then, observers were positively breathless in their accolades for the service, with some positing that Vine represented some sort of tipping point in the world of instant communications.

A little more than four years later … and as of November 1, Vine has just been shuttered. How is it that such a vaunted social media platform went from de rigeur to rigor mortis in such a short time?

There are several key reasons why.

Time and place: The year 2012 was a perfect time to launch Vine, as it coincided with when many companies and brands were shifting their focus towards video communications.  At the time, short-form video was a novelty, making it a kind of dog whistle in the market.  But Instagram, newly acquired by Facebook, swooped in and made a big splash, too, while Snapchat attracted younger audiences.  What was Vine’s response to these competitor moves?  If there was much of any, no one seems to have noticed.

Competing … with yourself: Strange as it may seem, Twitter itself ended up competing with Vine in 2015, launching its own branded video playback capabilities.  When something like that happens, what’s the purpose of the older brand that’s doing the same thing?  Twitter’s simultaneous foray into live-streaming was a further blow to a brand that simply couldn’t compete with these newer video services introduced by Vine’s very own parent company.

Commercial viability? — What commercial viability? In all its time on the scene, Vine never figured out a way to sell advertising on its network.  It had a good germ of an idea in sponsored content, but never seemed to capitalize on the opportunities that presented, either.

Knowing your audience: From the outset, Vine attracted a fairly unique and crowd of users, such as people involved in the hip-hop music scene.  It was vastly different from the typical user base in social media – and yet Vine never did all that much to support these users.  As a result, there was little brand affinity to keep them close when the next “bright, shiny object” came their way.

In the social media space, the rise and fall of platforms can happen with amazing speed. Unlike some other platforms, Vine was a big hit from the get-go … but perhaps that turned out to be a double-edged sword.  Vine never did figure out a way to “mature” with its audiences – which eventually left it behind.

In the end, Vine went out not with a bang, but with a whimper.

TV viewing: More choices than ever … but for viewers it’s a big “so what.”

tmc

In theory, people love to have choices. But in practice, does having many choices always matter?

In the world of TV viewing, the answer seems to be … not so much.

New findings from Nielsen’s Total Audience Report finds that the average number of channels received by American viewers of TV is just over 200. But on average, people view fewer than 20 different TV channels during the course of a month.

That means that people are typically  watching just 10% of the channels available to them.

[For purposes of the Nielsen report, “TV viewing” is defined as watching TV live or via DVR/time-shifted viewing.]

Trends shifting over time.

In a related report published by Marketing Charts, traditional TV viewing has declined in nearly every age group over the past five years.

Here’s how those stats break down:

  • Ages 12-17: Weekly TV viewing is down ~36% over the past five years
  • Ages 18-24: Down ~38%
  • Ages 25-34: Down ~26%
  • Ages 35-49: Down ~12%
  • Ages 50-64: Down ~2%
  • Ages 65+: Up ~5%

Clearly, younger generations are finding outlets for their leisure time other than traditional TV viewing. What’s more, time-shifted viewing remains only a small fraction of all TV viewing — no better than 90/10 split in favor of live TV in any of the six age categories tested.

So we have a combination of tradition asserting itself – people continuing to watch relatively few TV channels – along with some changing behaviors that promise to continue to upend the traditional TV industry.

More findings from the new Nielsen and Marketing Charts reports can be accessed here and here.

What’s Up with Apps These Days?

Results from comScore’s latest annual U.S. Mobile App Report point to some interesting user behaviors.

No one needs to be reminded of how important mobile apps have become in today’s world of communications. Just looking around any crowd of people, it’s clear that usage has become well-nigh ubiquitous.

And now, we have some new stats that help quantify what’s happening, courtesy of the most recent annual Mobile App Report published by global media measurement and analytics firm comScore.

Among the salient findings from this report:

  • Today, mobile devices represent two of every three minutes spent on digital media.
  • Smartphone apps alone account for nearly half of all digital media time spent – and three of every four minutes spent while on mobile.
  • Over the past three years, total time spent on digital media has grown by over 50%. Most all of that growth has been because of mobile apps.
  • Indeed, time spent on desktop media has actually dropped by more than 10%.

Despite the rapid rise of mobile app usage, there are a few findings in the comScore report that point toward some consolidation of the market, with certain apps being the recipient of strong brand loyalties.

Typically, while smartphone users have uploaded many apps on their devices – and may use several dozens of them on a monthly basis – nine out of every ten mobile app minutes are spent with just five top apps.

[Good luck to any app provider attempting to break into that rarefied group of top performers!]

At the same time, “push notification fatigue” appears to be a growing issue: More smartphone users are rejecting app update notifications than ever before.  According to comScore’s recent report, nearly 40% of users rarely or never agree to such update notifications – up significantly from around 30% last year.

Conversely, only about 25% often or always agree to updates, which is down from about one-third of users in last year’s survey.

This last set of figures doesn’t surprise me in the least. With so many apps housed on so many devices, one could easily spend an hour each day accessing nothing but app updates.

Especially considering how little additional functionality these ongoing updates actually deliver, the whole operation falls into the “life’s too short” category.

Journalism’s Slow Fade

jjLate last month, the 2016 Lecture Series at the Panetta Institute for Public Policy in Carmel, CA hosted a panel discussion focusing on the topic “Changing Society, Technology and Media.”

The panelists included Ted Koppel, former anchor of ABC News’ Nightline, Howard Kurtz, host of FAX News’ Media Buzz, and Judy Woodruff, co-anchor and managing editor of the PBS NewsHour show.

During the discussion, Ted Koppel expressed his dismay over the decline of journalism as a professional discipline, noting that the rise of social media and blogging have created an environment where news and information are no longer “vetted” by professional news-gatherers.

One can agree or disagree with Koppel about whether the “democratization” of media represents regression rather than progress, but one thing that cannot be denied is that the rise of “mobile media” has sparked a decline in the overall number of professional media jobs.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics can quantify the trend pretty convincingly. As summarized in a report published in the American Consumers Newsletter, until the introduction of smartphones in 2007, the effect of the Internet on jobs in traditional media, newspapers, magazines and book had been, on balance, rather slight.

To wit, between 1993 and 2007, U.S. employment changes in the following segments looked like this:

  • Book Industry: Net increase of ~700 jobs
  • Magazines: Net decline of ~300 jobs
  • Newspapers: Net decline of ~79,000 jobs

True, the newspaper industry had been hard hit, but other segments not nearly so much, and indeed there had been net increases charted also in radio, film and TV.

But with the advent of the smartphone, Internet and media access underwent a transformation into something personal and portable. Look how that has impacted on jobs in the same media categories when comparing 2007 to 2016 employment:

  • Book Industry: Net loss of ~20,700 jobs
  • Magazines: Net loss of ~48,400 jobs
  • Newspapers: Net loss of ~168,200 jobs

Of course, new types of media jobs have sprung up during this period, particularly in Internet publishing and broadcasting. But those haven’t begun to make up for the losses noted in the segments above.

According to BLS statistics, Internet media employment grew by ~125,300 between 2007 and 2016 — but that’s less than half the losses charted elsewhere.

All told, factoring in the impact of TV, radio and film, there has been a net loss of nearly 160,000 U.S. media jobs since 2007.

employment-trends-in-newspaper-publishing-and-other-media-1990-2016

You’d be hard-pressed to find any other industry in the United States that has sustained such steep net losses over the past decade or so.

Much to the chagrin of old-school journalists, newspaper readership has plummeted in recent years — and with it newspaper advertising revenues (both classified and display).

The change in behavior is across the board, but it’s particularly age-based. These usage figures tell it all:

  • In 2007, ~33% of Americans age 18 to 34 read a daily newspaper … today it’s just 16%.
  • Even among Americans age 45 to 64, more than 50% read a daily newspaper in 2007 … today’s it’s around one third.
  • And among seniors age 65 and up, whereas two-thirds read a daily paper in 2007, today it’s just 50%.

With trends like that, the bigger question is how traditional media have been able to hang in there as long as they have. Because if it were simply dollars and cents being considered, the job losses would have been even steeper.

Perhaps we should take people like Jeff Bezos — who purchased the Washington Post newspaper not so long ago — at their word:  Maybe they do wish to see traditional journalism maintain its relevance even as the world around it is changing rapidly.

The Gawker saga: Are there any good guys in this drama?

gmSome people I’ve spoken to about blog collective Gawker Media’s recent legal and corporate tribulations have expressed concerns about the chilling effect well-funded lawsuits may be having on a free and unfettered press.  But it’s hard to find any angels in the ongoing saga of Gawker Media and its many detractors.

The latest news is that Gawker is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection even as it entertains an acquisition bid from publishing firm Ziff Davis.

Reportedly, Ziff Davis is offering $90 million to purchase Gawker Media.  This compares to the $140 million judgment against Gawker handed down by the courts in March in the Hulk Hogan defamation lawsuit.

hhLooking at the sordid details, it’s hard to find sympathy for any of the major players.  In the choice words of journalist and writer Bob Garfield:

“[Gawker Media is a] snide, predatory gossip site that built a reputation cutting hypocritical big shots down to size, but soon ran out of big shots and turned its sneering animus on any anonymous medium-shot unfortunate enough to fall into its sights … Gawker.com is in the schadenfreude business.”

Professional wrestler and television personality Hulk Hogan (aka Terry Gene Bollea) isn’t a paradigm of virtue, either – what with his history of obnoxious statements and what we’ll call euphemistically “other activities” that fall pretty low on the class-meter.

ptTech industry billionaire Peter Thiel, who provided the financial backing for Hulk Hogan’s successful lawsuit, was once a victim of Gawker himself – being “outed” as gay by the media site.  But Thiel’s über-libertarian pronouncements appear churlish on the one hand, while his legal takedown of Gawker seems to be at cross-purposes with the “anything goes” free speech premises of libertarianism.

Nick Denton, Gawker founder and CEO, has remained defiant even in the wake of the latest turn of events:  “Even with his billions, Thiel will not silence our writers.  Our sites will thrive – under new ownership,” Denton has been quoted, adding that court appeals will continue.

Clearly, this drama isn’t ending anytime soon. But with no sympathetic characters in this drama — and that’s about the most positive thing one can say about it — who’s ready to take a shower right about now?