Cable Subscribers Would Still Get ESPN After It Goes Direct to Consumer

The original ESPN logo on display in Digital Center 2 in Bristol, Connecticut
(Image credit: Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images)

When — and not if — ESPN goes direct-to-consumer, subscribers to the pay TV bundle will still have access to its programming, The Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger said.

Speaking on Disney’s earnings call Wednesday, Iger continued to be certain that ESPN would become a streaming service, but didn’t say when. 

“Our plan when we bring ESPN direct to the consumer — which is inevitable, it’s going to happen, we're planning for it — is to try what I'll call a soft landing,“ he said.

That means that Disney would continue to make ESPN available a part of the bundle, while also releasing a version of the network “on a true a la carte basis in DTC form,” he said.

“It is our hope that it will serve basically the consumer in two ways, in the traditional way and in a new way and we'll obviously see in terms of where we end up the blend of basically consumers that stay in the bundle and those that leave,” Iger said. 

Over the longer term, “as we model basically ESPN into the future, we see that in some cases it will continue to be sold as part of the bundle.”

Iger added that Disney has been talking with a number of entities that could strengthen an ESPN DTC service.

“I can say that there's significant interest out there,“ Iger said. ”There are obviously complexities to it, but not hurdles that are so high that we can't jump over them. And we're going to continue to explore it. And I would imagine we'll have more to say about this in the coming months.” 

Such entities could provide technology, marketing support or content, Iger said. 

On the call, Disney noted that despite worries about falling subscribers, ESPN’s revenue and operating income have grown in each of the past two years.

“We feel we have an excellent hand, by the way, and could do it [shift to streaming] without that,“ Iger said. “But why not explore strengthening our hand?”

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.