Iger: ESPN Subs Growing

Disney chief Bob Iger addressed mounting fears that its ESPN sports network was losing customers to skinny bundles head-on Tuesday, telling analysts on the company’s fiscal Q1 earnings call that the sports channel has seen an uptick in subscribers in the past few months, in part because it has reached deals to be included in slimmed-down programming packages from distributors.  

Disney has been hit hard on fears that the absence of ESPN from skinny bundle packages from over-the-top providers like Verizon’s Custom TV package was eroding its subscriber base. A report from measurement giant Nielsen that ESPN had shed about 3 million subscribers in 2015 added fuel to those fears.

However, since August, when Disney first announced that it had seen a slight downturn in ESPN subscribers, Iger said the network’s fortunes have improved. The channel has been included in new “lite” packages from Sling TV which have resonated with millennials and brought former cord-cutters back to the pay TV fold. In addition, Nielsen has since revised its 2015 subscriber estimates, now claiming the losses were in the 1.2 million subscriber range.

Iger added that ESPN is in discussions with other distributors regarding including ESPN in their “lite” programming packages. He added that the uptick had not had an impact on the fiscal first quarter -- which ended Jan. 2 -- because it occured toward the end of that fiscal period and after.

"The subscriber trends that were going in a negative direction have abated somewhat," Iger said on a conference call with analysts to discuss quarterly results. "We believe the predictions that many have made are more dire than they should be."  

The Disney chief said the trends are showing that the expanded basic bundle is indeed healthy and sports programming is still compelling.

"The notion that either the expanded basic bundle is experiencing its demise or that ESPN is cratering in any way from a sub persective is just ridiculous," Iger said. "Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, live sports is among the highest rated programming across television and ESPN has this incredible set of licensing agreements with all the major sports; [it] has the best menu of live sports out there."