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NBCUniversal to Shut Down Esquire Network Cable Channel, Relaunch Brand as Digital Platform (EXCLUSIVE)

NBCUniversal will shutter Esquire Network’s linear cable channel and relaunch the brand as a digital-only platform, Variety has learned. The decision to end the cable channel’s operation was spurred by recent negotiations with Charter Communications over a carriage-contract renewal.

Esquire Network was dropped last month from AT&T’s DirecTV and U-Verse services. That move resulted in a loss of 25% of the channel’s subscribers — down from 60 million to 45 million. If Esquire Network were to be dropped by Charter, it would have lost an additional 15 million subscribers, making it no longer viable for Comcast-owned NBCUniversal to continue to operate.

Esquire Network will continue its cable feed through the summer. The channel employs around 50 staffers. Roughly 30 of those employees will likely be downsized, with the remainder kept on to service the brand’s new digital play.

Sources say that NBCUniversal is not pursuing a sale of the channel, as there are no prospective buyers — nor is a rebranding of the channel being considered.

In 2016, Esquire Network averaged 141,000 viewers in primetime, according to Nielsen live-plus-same day data. That ranks it near the bottom of nationally distributed cable channels in total viewership — below Discovery Family, MTV2, and Cooking Channel. It also is an 18% increase from Esquire Network’s average 2015 primetime viewership. The channel has shown year-over-year ratings growth every year since its 2013 relaunch. But the decision to shutter the brand’s linear operations reflects a creeping anxiety in the TV business about the ability to grow small cable channels as providers such as AT&T, Dish, and even Hulu move toward offering broadband-delivered channel packages that are smaller and less expensive than a traditional cable-TV bundle.

That shift is happening at a time when more outlets are offering more original programming than ever before, creating a highly competitive environment for programmers. Speaking at the Television Critics Association press tour in 2015, FX CEO John Landgraf predicted “a culling of the herd” in which marginal cable brands would no longer be able to sustain themselves in the face of ever-increasing competition. In October 2016, Participant Media shut down cable channel Pivot. And as Variety reported last month, NBCUniversal is in talks to relaunch another channel, female-skewing Oxygen, as a crime-genre brand centered around producer Dick Wolf’s Universal Television drama franchises. (NBCUniversal shuttered video-game-centric channel G4 in 2014).

A relaunched, direct-to-consumer digital service, available via Esquire.com, will be home to existing Esquire Network programming as well as new series such as “Borderland USA” (working title) and “Edgehill,” which will premiere on the digital platform this spring.

A spokesperson for NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment declined to comment.

A partnership between NBCUniversal and Hearst Corp., Esquire Network was launched in 2013, replacing NBCUniversal’s Style Network. The channel airs primarily unscripted programming, targeting a male audience with shows such as “Friday Night Tykes,” “Joyride,” “Brew Dogs,” “Team Ninja Warrior” and “Best Bars in America.” Esquire Network has also ventured into scripted programming with overseas acquisitions such as “Spotless.”

UPDATE: NBCUniversal released the following statements from Esquire Network and E! Entertainment president Adam Stotsky and Hearst Magazines president David Carey.

“Since its launch, Esquire Network has seen consistent growth among total viewers and key demos and has delivered significant value to our advertising partners. Men today consume content on a variety of platforms and it is essential that we follow our viewers,” said Stotsky. “We are grateful to the team that has contributed to Esquire’s many successes to date, and this new strategy sets us up for the future.”

“We look forward to our continued partnership with NBCUniversal with this digital driven, forward-looking strategy, which reinforces the brand’s premium value proposition,” said Carey.

Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.

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