There are few numbers in the media industry that turn heads and prompt speculation quite like the number of subscribers to ESPN, the sports giant that generates nearly half of all profits at Disney (DIS) , the world's largest entertainment company.
Nielsen (NLSN) on Friday said it was standing by a report from a week ago in which the media performance firm said pay-TV subscribers to ESPN fell by 631,000, or 3.1%, in October, its largest consecutive month decline in its history.
But when the subject is the shrinking universe of cable TV viewers, ESPN turns heads. And for good reason: It's the most expensive network for pay-TV providers to carry and consumers to pay for.
So when word of a 3.1% drop in ESPN subscribers was made public, the network pushed back, arguing that Nielsen's number-crunching didn't include subscribers from online multichannel platforms such as Dish Network's (DISH) SlingTV and Sony's (SNE) PlayStation Vue.
Sensitive to the feelings of one of its most prominent clients, Nielsen withdrew its Oct. 28 report, saying it would reanalyze its data. On Friday, Nielsen said the data was solid.
"Nielsen has now completed an extensive review and has verified that November estimates were accurate as originally released and that all the processes that go into the creation of these estimates were done correctly," the company said in a statement.
ESPN took little time to issue a rejoinder.
"This most recent snapshot from Nielsen is a historic anomaly for the industry and inconsistent with much more moderated trends observed by other respected third-party analysts," ESPN said in its statement. "It also does not measure [online multichannel platforms] and other new distributors, and we hope to work with Nielsen to capture this growing market in future reports."
It's likely that Disney CEO Bob Iger will have further comment to make on the controversy when the world's largest entertainment company reports its third-quarter earnings on Nov. 10.
Part of the dust-up from last week came after website Outkick the Coverage posted a story by the site's founder, Clay Travis, that read: "ESPN Loses 621,000 Subscribers; Worst Month in Company History."
That Travis is a contributor at rival Fox Sports and an employee of 21st Century Fox (FOXA) was not lost on those at ESPN. Travis asserted that Nielsen's data illustrates "the collapse in ESPN subscribers" that "represents a terrifying and troubling trend for the company."
Fox wouldn't comment on the post apart from verifying Travis' employment.
ESPN has never made its actual subscriber number public, choosing to allow Nielsen to serve as the third party of record to help set advertising rates for Disney and the industry.
Of course, ESPN knows the exact number. When Iger infamously said in August 2015 that ESPN had lost about 7 million subscribers over the previous two years, Disney's stock price tumbled, with the company losing $22 billion in market capitalization as investors fretted that the traditional pay-TV bundle was in free-fall.
But ESPN's subscriber total has been slipping as pay-TV operators create smaller packages that don't include a channel that is the most expensive to carry. Not only are ratings for NFL games much lower this fall than a year ago, the total universe of pay-TV subscribers is also falling by 1% to 2% annually.
Total subscribers at ESPN have dropped below 90 million for the first time in a decade even as SlingTV's customer base has reached 1 million subscribers, according to Park Associates. Total pay-TV customers number roughly 95.8 million, according to media analyst group MoffettNathanson.
In response to ESPN's early protestation about the Nielsen report, Pivotal Research Group media analyst Brian Wieser said the network was being "defensive," asking why Disney had been so quick to condemn Nielsen for a subscriber decline that wasn't much higher than what it was in July or a year ago in April 2015.
"The more surprising claim to us was the the reported trend was something new," Wieser, who has a buy rating on Disney, said in an investor note Monday. "We continue to believe Nielsen's figures are the best available around cable network subscriber levels, even with occasional adjustments or corrections, and we continue to believe that ESPN is experiencing low-single-digit subscriber declines."
What is clear is that fewer subscribers has translated into lower ratings.
Average prime-time viewership of ESPN this fall fell to 2.7 million, from 3.1 million a year ago, according to Nielsen. Among the key demographic of 18-to-49-year-olds, viewership slipped to 1.2 million from 1.3 million, Nielsen said.
Iger is sure to have more to say on the topic on Thursday.