ESPN2 has vaulted over the 60 million-subscriber mark faster than any other cable network in history.
Quoting Nielsen’s September 1998 cable universe estimates, ESPN2 has hit 60.4 million in just under five years. TNT held the previous record, crossing the 60 million line within 63 months. In third and fourth place are the Learning Channel, which hit 60 million in 72 months, and CNBC, which took 91 months to hit the mark.
ESPN2 benefited from one big advantage over its three rivals when the government passed a law called”retransmission consent.” The law allowed a broadcast network to extract a quid pro quo from a cable operator; the network, in return, let the cable system carry the local TV station owned by the network or affiliated with it.
Since ABC is a sister company of ESPN2 (both of them owned by Walt Disney), ESPN2 became the quid pro quo in ABC’s negotiations with cable systems to permit them to retransmit the ABC station signals.