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Nielsen Retracts Data Suggesting Record ESPN Subscriber Loss

Nielsen has retracted data issued last week after coming under fire from ESPN for suggesting cable networks suffered alarming declines to their subscriber counts.

The measurement company is re-crunching its numbers from its monthly “Cable Network Coverage Areas Universe Estimate” for November, which clients received Friday. Nielsen uses its national panel to estimate the number of households that receive cable channels like ESPN, CNN, and others.

Amid client complaints over perceived inaccuracies, Nielsen released the following statement:

“Nielsen is investigating a larger than usual change in the November 2016 Cable Network Coverage Area Household and Persons Universe Estimates (versus the prior month). We take the accuracy of our data very seriously and are conducting a thorough analysis to determine whether or not there is an issue with these estimates. We are working closely with our clients and will update them as soon as the analysis is complete.”

The data in question suggested ESPN lost a record 621,000 subscribers over the most recent month, prompting a strong reaction from the Disney-owned sports network:

“The Nielsen numbers represent a dramatic, unexplainable variation over prior months’ reporting, affecting all cable networks. We have raised this issue with Nielsen in light of their demonstrated failures over the years to accurately provide subscriber data. The data does not track our internal analysis nor does it take into account new DMVPD entrants into the market.”

Those “DMVPD entrants” ESPN is talking about are “virtual” MVPDs like Dish’s Sling TV or PlayStation Vue, which serve up pay TV packages via the Internet. All told, virtual MVPD subscribers aren’t yet a significant portion of the pay TV base — Dish says it has around 1 million subscribers for Sling, while Vue only launched nationally in March 2016. But it is a growing sector of the pay TV industry.

ESPN in particular remains a big target for sports media types and analysts because of its outsize subscription fee: Parent company Disney gets $7.21 per ESPN subscriber, plus a little more for ESPN 2 and other related channels, according to estimates from SNL Kagan. (For comparison’s sake, CNN gets about $0.71 per subscriber, per SNL Kagan.) Because it brings in so much money for Disney, investors are more prone to greet any news regarding the Worldwide Leader in Sports with big swings in the stock price.

Case in point: In the summer of 2015, Nielsen released a cable universe estimate that showed a greater-than-normal drop in ESPN subscribers, which set off a media stock fire sale that August after Disney CEO Bob Iger confirmed on an earnings call that ESPN’s subscriber base was indeed experiencing some erosion. In January 2016, Nielsen backtracked on that report by removing from its data set households that were broadband-only, which upped cable networks’ penetration rates.

While Nielsen is sorting out the November estimates, the usual crew of cord-cutting proselytizers has moved in. But there are shoulder-shruggers as well. Pivotal Research Group senior analyst Brian Wieser doesn’t see Nielsen’s initial estimates changing in a significant way, if at all. He also doesn’t see that as a bombshell, given that Nielsen had in prior months reported ESPN subscriber losses of around 500,000 and even 600,000.

“Overall, this incident probably raises concerns among investors that are probably unwarranted, as we think there is not likely any new news here,” Wieser wrote in a note to investors. “It seems unlikely that there was any meaningful change in the general trajectory of ESPN subscribers nor in the overall quality of Nielsen’s data.” Wieser continues to rate Disney a Buy.

The sky is falling. Or maybe it isn’t. Or perhaps it is falling, but it’s been falling for some time now, and no one need panic. It all depends on who you ask and what your agenda is.

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