SBD/4/Sports Media

COULD FISSURES SLOWLY BE DEVELOPING IN THE ESPN BEHEMOTH?

          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).  

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