Disney (DIS) CEO Bob Iger might just as well have said, "Everyone, chill out."
Over the past week, the sudden and seemingly inexplicable loss of 621,000 ESPN subscribers in October had put the company on the defensive, forced to counter Nielsen's generally thorough number-crunching, putting Disney at loggerheads with the ratings firm that remains the industry standard despite occasional controversies.
With typical aplomb, Iger on an investor conference call Thursday characterized the decline as an "anomaly," insisting the four-year decline in ESPN's subscriber base eventually would be offset by the slow but steady growth of multichannel streaming platforms -- known in the industry as over-the-top services -- such as Dish Network's (DISH) SlingTV.
"We also believe that new entrants in the marketplace, particularly [internet TV services], are going to offer ESPN opportunities that they haven't had before to reach more people," Iger said. "And in particular, we think those offerings, because of their pricing, user interface [and] mobile-friendly nature, are likely to cause more Millennials to either stay in the multichannel ecosystem as subscribers or to enter it when they might not have in the past."
In other words, Iger said, the problem isn't ESPN or its programming, or even its hefty cost structure. It's distribution. Iger's argument is that as more people become familiar and comfortable with skinnier bundles at more attractive price points, they're more likely to return as subscribers.
Options for consumers are increasing rapidly. In the coming weeks, SlingTV and Sony's (SNE) PlayStation Vue will be joined by AT&T's (T) DirecTV Now, Alphabet's (GOOGL) Google Unplugged and early next year, a variety of digital-TV offerings from Hulu, which of course is part owned by Disney.
Nonetheless, the immediate trends for ESPN look challenging.
Advertising at the sports network fell 13% in the quarter ended Sept. 30 while affiliate fee revenue -- the amount of money pay-TV operators pay Disney to carry the network -- also declined. Investor concern about the stock has been driven over the past 12 months -- as shares fell 19% -- on the notion that ESPN won't be able to secure the same level of affiliate fee growth that has fueled its massive expansion over the past 20 years.
"With newer Over The Top bundles emerging, ESPN should be able to moderate some of the impact of legacy [pay-TV] declines," Barclays media analyst Kannan Venkateshwar said in an investor note Friday. "To be clear, we continue to believe ESPN is secularly challenged, and its affiliate growth of around 3%, second-slowest after Viacom (VIAB) , underlines this fact. However, with more visibility at least over the next year, we believe the drag from this factor on the stock is likely to moderate."
Venkateshwar has an equal weight rating on the stock and an $89 price target. Disney shares on Friday rose 2.9% to $97.68.
Nielsen's report two weeks ago that ESPN subscriber losses hit 621,000, or about 3.1%, fits into a general trend that began after the pay-TV audience peaked in the first quarter of 2013. 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. At 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.
Disney, for its part, attributed ESPN's ad sales drop on the near disappearance of fantasy sports advertising, an additional week in the fiscal fourth quarter in 2015 and a general migration by marketers to networks carrying the Rio Olympics (Comcast's (CMCSA) NBC). While acknowledging that weaker ratings for NFL games has been a factor, Iger disputed the notion that viewing for professional football might be on a slow downward slope.
Lower ratings, he said, were more the result of competing against a popular World Series, the 2016 presidential election and individual game matchups that haven't had quite the allure of past seasons.
"I actually think that there's kind of a lot of premature speculation there," he said. "It happens to be a season that's occurred when postseason baseball was very strong, and clearly the election had some impact, certainly the debates did. So, I think it's a little too soon to jump to conclusions."
The same might be said about ESPN.