ESPN Gets Defensive About Ratings Drop

Earlier this week we told you about ESPN's recent ratings woes. The numbers dropped significantly in the second quarter this year. They were down in the first quarter, too, and they were flat last year. Now that the news is getting around, ESPN PR—which usually projects an air of lordly remove in the face of bad publicity, saving the bellyaching for off-the-record phone calls—has started aggressively playing defense.

Last night, for instance, David Letterman's Top 10 list was "Lowest Rated ESPN Programs." (No. 8: "Everybody Loves Talc"; No. 1: "The Joe Theismann Prostate Report." It's the Top 10; what do you want?)

Today, uncharacteristically, the network addressed the Letterman gag on its Front Row Blog, which is like Pravda with less of a sense of humor. The explanation: fewer marquee NBA games; bad draw for the NBA playoffs; less soccer.

The reason for the drop? It is largely attributable to the end of 2012’s NBA lock-out shortened schedule being particularly strong.

You might recall the end of the season last year was back-loaded with a big increase in highly rated games (23 over a month in 2012 versus eight in 2013). This was combined with fewer Conference Finals contests (seven from the Eastern Conference in 2012 compared to three in the 2013 Western Conference). The lack of major market teams’ appearances on ESPN — in 2012 the Lakers and Heat combined for 11 ESPN appearances but just two in 2013 — also factors in.

Boston was featured in 10 2012 playoffs games but only two in 2013, resulting in fewer marquee players in marquee cities to drive viewership. In all, ESPN had 31 fewer NBA games, which not only affected game ratings but also hurt studio shows that routinely get a post-game lift.

Additionally in 2012, ESPN benefitted from 21 Euro Championship matches. This year, ESPN had the Confederations Cup, but it was only about half as many matches with lesser national interest.

“Last quarter was a rare aberration and we expect our demographic delivery to return to normal levels in the second half of 2013,” said ESPN Senior VP of Research and Analytics, Artie Bulgrin.

The Bristol spin machine was set to 11 today:

This, of course, doesn't explain the drops from the first quarter this year. So, it's not the rarest of "aberrations."

Why the PR pushback? Maybe it's because all this is happening at a delicate time for ESPN and its corporate parent: A Goldman Sachs analyst is telling investors to be cautious about Disney's stock because Fox Sports 1 is launching next month and could draw advertisers away from ESPN; Disney's Lone Ranger was a disaster at the box office; and ESPN just laid off a few hundred people. John Skipper doesn't want to hear from Disney CEO Bob Iger right now. It's a safe bet no one in Burbank was laughing during The Late Show last night, and not just because the jokes weren't funny.

[Front Row Blog]