ESPN Hopes to Be Cable’s BMOC Again

On the heels of its second-straight yearly win in the primetime ratings, ESPN will look to score another cable ratings record with its Jan. 11 telecast of the College Football Playoff Championship Game between Clemson and Alabama. Last year, a cable-record 33.6 million viewers watched Ohio State defeat Oregon in the inaugural title game.

ESPN senior vice president of global research and analytics Artie Bulgrin recently spoke with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the 24-hour sports network’s ratings success in 2015, and how well it expects to score with the championship game. In a wide-ranging interview, he also handicapped the the network’s odds for a threepeat in the yearly primetime ratings.

UPDATE:Alabama-Clemson Game Fails to Score Ratings Record

MCN:Were you surprised by ESPN’s second-straight strong primetime ratings performance in 2015?

Artie Bulgrin: This is actually extraordinary, because last year was the first year we won primetime across the board, and now we’ve done it again this year. I think the reason for this is primarily because sports and live programming is what we are virtually all day long, and that’s proving to be a significant advantage in a world where virtually everything else can be time-shifted.

We are in a TV world that’s going through a period of tremendous fragmentation. There’s more choice than ever before, particularly in primetime. Our events are performing extremely well and holding up year after year; there’s virtually no erosion to our events. What’s happening here is that among sports fans — young and old, male and female — sports programming moves up in the hierarchy of live television viewing when they are making their television choices.

MCN:Going into 2016, are you confident you can keep the streak going?

AB: I think we can, because we have the rights to the biggest live sports events and our news and information is still a huge draw for us and will continue to be so. At the same time, we know sports fans are using ESPN in different ways across numerous platforms.

Our cross-platform connection to our fans each and every day, all day long, enables us to stay connected to our viewers on any platform and eventually navigate them to our Monday Night Football, college-football or college-basketball telecasts any night of the week. We are the quintessential cross-platform media company, and our reach across platforms allows us to stay in contact with our fans across the day, which is a really big deal.

MCN:Does ESPN’s primetime win vindicate the network after many pundits questioned its ability to remain the sports leader after suffering sizeable subscriber losses?

AB: I don’t know if it’s vindication or not, but we have plenty of viewers out there. Sports fans are still connected to multichannel services, and I think this is proof of it — it’s proof of the appeal of sports in a multichannel space.

MCN:Last year’s ESPN college-football championship telecast set an all-time cable viewing record. Do you foresee a repeat performance from this year’s telecast?

AB: I think we will. In many ways, we’re in a better position for that final championship game than we were last year, because viewers were still going through an educational process moving from the [Bowl Championship Series] to the [College Football Playoff] process. I think we’ve done an extraordinary job promoting this, heading into these last final weeks, and we know for a fact that knowledge about the College Football Playoff and also intent to view is very strong, for the simple reason that the fans understand what it’s all about, they understand the system and there’s a lot at stake. We’re looking forward to seeing the ratings after [tonight’s] final championship game. I think we will do very well and we’ll get off to a very, very fast start.

MCN:Should viewers look for anything different on-air from ESPN in 2016?

AB: I think we have a winning formula now, but we’ll have international soccer, Euro 2016, so that will help us out a bit. But beyond that, it’s a steady slate that will continue to pace us during the year.

SIDEBAR: Disney, Nick Win ’15 in Total Day

Disney Channel and Nickelodeon finished in a dead tie in 2015 for the top spot among cable networks on a 24-hour basis. Disney also matched Nick among kids 2-11 and was the top choice among kids 6-11 and tweens 9-14, according to Nielsen.

Most Watched Cable Networks Among Total Viewers, 2015 (Total Day)

Network                            Total Viewers
Disney Channel. . . . . . . . . . . .1.23 million
Nickelodeon . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1.23 million
Adult Swim. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.12 million
Fox News Channel . . . . . . . . .1.08 million
Cartoon Network . . . . . . . . . .1.00 million
USA Network . . . . . . . . . . . . . .974,000
ESPN . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 906,000
TNT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 905,000
HGTV . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 830,000
Nick at Nite. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .776,000

SOURCE: Nielsen

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.