This article originally appeared on Real Money on Nov. 9, 2016.
When Disney (DIS) reports its fourth-quarter earnings on Thursday, much attention will be focused on whatever CEO Bob Iger says about ESPN, the most expensive channel for pay-TV operators to carry.
While Iger may not provide investors with a round subscriber number for ESPN (he rarely does), it's likely he'll offer some choice words on whether Nielsen was right to report that the popular sports network lost 3.1%, or about 621,000, subscribers in the month of October alone.
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The apparent decline, a subject of a hot dispute between Disney and Nielsen, would fall in the higher range of a trend that's at least four years old. As the summer came to a close, total subscribers of ESPN had fallen under 90 million for the first time in more than 10 years, according to sources familiar with the tallies.
As of the end of 2013, the total stood at 97 million, and that subsequently dropped to 95 million in 2014 and 92 million at the end of last year.
Of course, ESPN isn't the only network losing subscribers. The entire pay-TV universe has been shrinking since the first quarter of 2012 when the industry peaked at about 100 million. The erosion in customers is due, of course, to the ascendance of newfangled platforms and websites led by Netflix (NFLX) , Alphabet's (GOOGL) YouTube, Dish Networks' (DISH) SlingTV and even over-the-air antennae, which are becoming more popular as their quality has improved.