- The Washington Times - Monday, July 20, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The queen and I recently switched our cable/Internet service from Comcast to Verizon, disappointed with the former’s service but also enticed by the latter’s offer of a $400 gift card.

I made sure our new package included some premium movie channels such as HBO and Showtime, but was surprised to discover that a number of what-I-thought-were-basic channels no longer appeared in our lineup. The two princesses howled that they no longer could fill up on “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” re-runs.

One channel that remained in place — though much higher up the dial — was ESPN. Like old faithful, “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” has been part of my cable universe since I launched into bill-paying young adulthood.

Imagining a world without ESPN has been unfathomable. But it is has become a well-publicized possibility for others consumers, based on a slew of recent stories about cable TV’s cord-cutters and, worse, “cord-nevers.”

The terms refer to consumers who either have left or never signed up for cable in the first place. Instead, they resort to the Internet for news and entertainment, with streaming options increasingly available on laptops and mobile devices. According to Variety, about 1.4 million households last year either canceled existing pay-TV services or were new households that didn’t sign up.

Additionally, the publication reports, the first quarter of 2015 was unprecedented: It marked the first time that cable dropped a net number of subscribers in the first three months of a year.

The trend could help explain a trio of high-profile departures from “The Worldwide Leader in Sports,” which commands a far-and-away industry-high fee from cable companies — about $6.61 per customer — but is trending in the wrong direction. As my esteemed colleague Thom Loverro pointed out in his Monday column, The Wall Street Journal reports that ESPN has lost 3.2 million subscribers in a little over a year and Walt Disney Co. has ordered the subsidiary to cut costs.

In the past two months, high-salaried talent such as Bill Simmons, Keith Olbermann and Colin Cowherd have departed. A number of industry observers have speculated on ESPN’s fate, wondering how the network would fare as an a la carte cable option as opposed to being included in the basic package.

Analyst Michael Nathanson told Forbes that users would have to pay $36.30 per month for ESPN.

At that price point, I suspect the network would lose a bevy of viewers, never to come back, back, back, back.

Can’t say that I blame them.

Although ESPN holds broadcast rights to the biggest leagues and events — NFL, MLB, NBA, the college football playoffs, SEC football, Wimbledon, etc. — life would go on just fine.

Between over-the-air TV, competing cable networks, various highlights shows and sports websites, fans should be able to weather the loss without too much difficulty. If a craving becomes unbearable, they can always visit the nearest watering hole (or friend’s house) for a quick fix.

We’re already in the neighborhood of oversaturation, where sports can become too much of a good thing. When something is always on, there’s little time to feel like you’re missing it. Live games have no rivals as far as original programming, but modern technology allows you to keep track as it happens even when you can’t see the action.

ESPN’s vise-like grip on the American sports consumer isn’t going away any time soon. It continues to run roughshod over “competitors” from Fox, CBS and NBC. But the small fry are chipping away, taking NASCAR (NBC), Big East basketball and World Cup (Fox) and the NCAA hoops tournament (CBS/Turner) in recent years.

One thing that won’t change is our growing reliance on laptops and mobile devices at the expense of TV sets. Just like the Internet fatally wounded print journalism, and cable gravelly injured over-the-air networks, digital technology is putting a chokehold on cable.

You’ll know the situation is terminal if or when ESPN offers a standalone live-streaming service such as HBO Now, dealing directly with sports fans while cutting out the middleman (cable). Some observers consider HBO’s move to be a death knell of sorts for cable TV as we know it.

With broadcast rights for some properties extending past the next decade, ESPN has a lot to offer.

How we consume it by 2020 is another question.

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