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Volume 20 No. 41
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Cable nets see distribution drop

ESPN is in 96.994 million homes, the channel’s smallest footprint since 2008, according to the latest cable distribution figures from Nielsen.

In fact, ESPN has lost 3.183 million homes from its footprint over the past two years, since reaching nearly 100.2 million homes on Nielsen’s chart as of July 2011.

Almost all other cable networks experienced similar drops. In Nielsen’s December report, each of the 30 biggest cable channels saw their footprint drop during 2013, with 23 of the 30 showing drops of more than 1 million homes.

But ESPN executives say the drop has more to do with the way Nielsen counts homes, than as evidence of cord cutting, which is one of the industry’s biggest fears.

“It’s like a Swiss watch here, with a lot of wheels turning to create this number,” said Glenn Enoch, vice president of integrated media research at ESPN. “You need to have a very large grain of salt to take them with. But it doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s going on with our real count, which, of course, we can’t share with you.”

Instead of counting only homes that have TV sets connected to antennas or to multichannel providers, Nielsen recently started counting broadband-only homes that have a TV connected to a game console or an over-the-top provider. The inclusion of broadband-only homes resulted in a December Nielsen report that shows big losses for all the top networks, Enoch said.

“We will never be back to that 2011 number,” Enoch said. “It’s kind of a weird benchmark for us. It affected everybody.”

For example, TBS has the third-biggest distribution footprint of all cable networks in the newest Nielsen report. But its 98.567 million homes is the network’s lowest figure since September 2008 and a drop of 2.66 million since its high mark in July 2011.

ESPN executives say they still see no evidence of cord cutting, adding that any cord-cutting losses have been offset by new subscribers.

“Cord cutting has nothing to do with what I see in the November and December counts,” Enoch said. “There’s churn within the cable universe at all times. There are people who are dropping and adding cable constantly.”