Esquire Network may be missed, but not by many. According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day numbers, the channel averaged 141,000 viewers in primetime for 2016. That was an 18% increase from 2015, but it was not enough to lift Esquire off the bottom rung of cable TV channels.
Last week, NBCUniversal announced that the channel would cease linear operations this summer. NBCU and Hearst, partners in the venture, said it would live on as a digital platform at Hearst’s Esquire.com. But that effort may not last beyond the length of NBCUniversal’s deal with Hearst, which expires in two years. Most of Esquire Network’s roughly 50 employees are being laid off.
Esquire Network’s demise could be a portent of things to come. Speaking at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in 2015, FX CEO John Landgraf predicted a “culling of the herd” among cable channels, prompted by increasing pressures in an adapting marketplace. At this month’s press tour, TruTV president Chris Linn told Variety that the onus is on small and mid-sized cable channels to build their brands if they hope to survive.
“The way you do it is by having projects that feel distinct and different,” Linn said. “Deliver something that no one else is delivering and create a one-to-one connection with the audience.”
Under Linn, TruTV has shifted from a focus on reality to a slate of original comedy series that it produces, and thus hopes to profit from in the long term. But TruTV has no shortage of competition in the comedy space. And programmers face more competition than ever. According to FX, there were 454 original scripted series across broadcast, cable, and streaming last year — an 8% increase over the previous year, mainly due to Netflix alone.
Esquire Network leaned on a slate of male-skewing reality shows and a handful of scripted foreign acquisitions (though it is perhaps best known for the dozens of hours of “Parks and Recreation” it schedules each week). The channel was dropped by Dish and AT&T last year. NBCUniversal pulled the plug when it became clear during negotiations with Charter Communications that the provider was not interested keeping Esquire Network. Being dropped by Charter would have meant a loss of 33% of the niche network’s subscribers — down to 30 million.
The past year has seen the advent of skinny bundles — broadband channel packages that are smaller and cheaper than traditional cable-TV bundles, exemplified by DirecTV Now and a forthcoming offering from Hulu. As those offerings gain popularity, smaller channels become tougher sells in carriage negotiations.
And media companies have begun to signal that they are less willing to fight for those channels than they used to be. Speaking at a conference in June, NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke said: “If we can get an extra dime from Dish, I would rather have it on USA than have it on a channel that really isn’t getting traction with consumers. So we will go to Dish or somebody else and say, ‘OK, you can drop this.’”
Esquire Network is unlikely to be the last cable channel to come out the loser in such a bargain. At Viacom, new CEO Bob Bakish has a number of niche channels — including Logo (73,000 average primetime viewers in 2016), MTV2 (159,000), and CMT (266,000) — that will need a hard look as he formulates a strategy for turning the beleaguered company around. Discovery Communications has stragglers such as Discovery Life (89,000), Discovery Family (148,000), and Velocity (222,000). NBCU still operates low-circulation channels Cloo (51,000) and Chiller (64,000). And independent networks such as Fuse (59,000) and UP (125,000) lack the backing of a large cable group to protect them.
If the TV business continues its current course, the stewards of those brands may be faced with a tough choice: invest in an expensive growth strategy with no guarantee of success, or abandon ship.