Cable Cord-Cutting in Arkansas, and Feeling It at ESPN

Cable Cord-Cutting in Arkansas, and Feeling It at ESPN
Steve Sullivan of KATV-TV, Channel 7

A friend in Little Rock decided to cut the cord when he moved. He planned to do without cable TV altogether, at least until college football season began.

His thinking reflected one of cable’s last hopes as viewers increasingly rely on streaming, social media and even that ancient throwback, the free airwaves.

For years, sports was a deal-saver. For live events, you had to have cable, and ESPN was the giant holding the strings keeping millions of fans tethered.

But when college football season rolled around in September, my friend surprised himself. “I never went back to cable,” he said. “I was able to go to friends’ houses, or to bars, to see games. I could watch clips on my phone. I also could learn not to give a care.” OK, he used an earthier word than “care.”

But his choice goes a long way in summing up a crisis at ESPN, which laid off about 100 in April, including many well-known sportscasters and sportswriters.

The “Worldwide Leader in Sports” strode the world like a colossus for decades after its founding in 1979, but trends have turned against it. The channel has lost 12 million subscribers from its peak of 100 million in 2011, according to Nielsen. The number of U.S. households subscribing to cable TV has fallen 25 percent to just over 50 million homes.

On the flip side, ESPN’s costs for content have skyrocketed to well over $7 billion a year, more than any competitor, according to projections from Boston Consulting Group and SNL Kagan. That compares to $5 billion by Netflix and $4.3 billion by NBC. Rights to “Monday Night Football” alone cost ESPN $1.9 billion a year, not to mention hefty deals with the NCAA and NBA.

With technology disrupting businesses from the recording industry to publishing, ESPN could have seen this coming, like Tom Brady sniffing out a blitz.

“Big dollars for rights fees combined with less cable subscribers led to big problems,” said Steve Sullivan, the KATV sports anchor who has been covering Arkansas sports since Lou Holtz was coaching the Razorbacks and Keith Jackson was dreaming of college, not NFL greatness, as a Parkview High School star. “I was stunned to see people like Jayson Stark (baseball) and Andy Katz (college hoops) fired.” He predicted far fewer multimillion-dollar contracts for ESPN personalities.

Dudley Dawson, a prolific reporter for Hawgs Illustrated and, described an “arms race” to land pro and college games. “Too much money was paid to the leagues, and now it’s coming to fruition.”

But Dawson also acknowledged the human toll. “It’s sad when anyone loses a job, be it in newspaper, radio or TV,” he said in an email. “We all have mouths to feed, and all put in so much time” into careers in sports.

“But I think of all the ways I keep up with the St. Louis Cardinals now — on my phone, on my iPad, via Twitter, on my watch, via … I do watch them on TV, just not as much as I used to do.”

Sullivan agreed, saying the golden years for TV sports are over. “I can remember coming to Little Rock and there were three options, Channel 4, 7 and 11. Now you have to worry about things like Sling TV.” Sling is a streaming package starting at $20 a month for about 30 channels, including ESPN, CNN, AMC, TNT, HGTV and Disney.

The bottom line, Dawson said, is that so many jobs are now vulnerable to technology. “We see some business entity doing this almost daily now,” he said. “Technology has reduced the workforce needed” to put out a newspaper, produce a broadcast or manufacture a product. “ESPN, Fox, etc., have to adjust, and this is likely just the start of a different business model that involves fewer people.”

Sullivan said his job requires technical abilities and different thinking nowadays. “Having a strong presence on Twitter is a must,” he said. “Facebook Live has also become a good weapon,” allowing KATV “to go live from anywhere at any time.” He compared viewing to shopping. “The easier the viewer can get the material, the better they like it.”

A Good Impression
John Festa, owner of Positive Impressions of Little Rock, received a bronze medal recently at the Pyramid Awards sponsored by the Promotional Products Association International in Las Vegas. The award came for Festa’s support for Behind the Badge, a pro bono ad campaign honoring law enforcement and featuring local uniformed officers. Positive Impressions provided 10,000 free bumper stickers for the effort.