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COULD FISSURES SLOWLY BE DEVELOPING IN THE ESPN BEHEMOTH?
Published June 4, 1998
ESPN's ratings for the first quarter of '98 "plunged," according to Scott Hettrick of the HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, who writes that the decline of ESPN's nightly 11:00pm ET "SportsCenter" is "most alarming." Nielsen Media Research reported that "SportsCenter" lost 106,000 viewers -- more than 11% of its audience -- from '97's first quarter. The show's average viewership now stands at 841,000. Hettrick writes that while it's "not directly attributable" to ESPN's ratings decline, "Fox Sports News" has gained 132,000 viewers from '97's fourth quarter and "appears to be making an impact" on ESPN. "Fox Sports News" is averaging 311,000 viewers per night, and its ratings have gone up 34% in L.A. and 17% in N.Y. Hettrick also cites the departure of former ESPN anchor Keith Olbermann as another possible factor in "SportsCenter"'s ratings decline (HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, 6/4). BIG PICTURE: ESPN's primetime viewership in the first quarter of '98 "dropped" 18% to 1.055 million, down from 1.286 million a year ago. Hettrick writes that what is "worse" is that ESPN's "explanation for the slide doesn't bode well for a turnaround," as a network spokesperson cited "more competition in sports programming and sports networks, greater fragmentation of the TV audience through digital cable and satellite services and more options in general for the male viewing audience ... None of which is likely to decrease in ESPN's favor." Hettrick adds that the ratings decline "couldn't come at a worse time" for ESPN, which is looking to sell a 20-22.5% rate increase on cable operators to cover its $4.8B NFL deal (HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, 6/4).