Walt Disney Co.'s (DIS) ESPN has been steadily losing subscribers for six years. President Donald Trump appears intent on accelerating that decline.
The president was up early this morning to hammer away at ESPN in retaliation for being called a "white supremacist" by Jemele Hill, a co-host of the network's flagship "SportsCenter" program. Trump appeared to indicate the network risked losing more subscribers for having chosen not to impel Hill to retract her denunciation of the president.
ESPN is paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming). People are dumping it in RECORD numbers. Apologize for untruth!- Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 15, 2017
ESPN declined to comment on Trump's tweet.
On Monday, Hill, who is African-American, tweeted that Trump is "a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists." Hill's comment followed the president's own defense in recent days of statements he made following the violent marches of American Nazis and Klansmen in Charlottesville, Va., in August. Though widely condemned by Democrats and Republicans, Trump faulted both the Nazis and Klansmen as well as those protesting their march.
The war of words, historically a part of politics, comes as ESPN launches a new program lineup in an effort to reverse declining subscriber totals. ESPN's inability to stanch declining subscription revenue has weighed heavily on the stock. Disney shares have fallen 5.5% in 2017, compared with an 11.5% advance by the S&P 500 index. Disney stock on Friday was up 0.6% to $98.50.
Pay-TV subscriptions to ESPN dropped to around 87 million subscribers at the end of 2016 from a peak of more than 100 million in 2011, according to Nielsen NV. ESPN also suffered the second-worst season for its flagship "Monday Night Football" during the 2016 season as ratings suffered across the league.
On Thursday, Hill issued an apology, stating that she erred in having brought her employer into the mix, given that she is a high-profile employee of the country's largest sports network.
"My comments on Twitter expressed my personal beliefs," Hill said. "My regret is that my comments and the public way I made them painted ESPN in an unfair light. My respect for the company and my colleagues remains unconditional."
ESPN didn't force Hill to retract her initial accusation, though the network did say that her comment was "inappropriate," adding that it didn't "represent the position of ESPN." White House press spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on Wednesday that ESPN should fire Hill.
Later, ESPN issued the following statement:
"Jemele has a right to her personal opinions, but not to publicly share them on a platform that implies that she was in any way speaking on behalf of ESPN. She has acknowledged that her tweets crossed that line and has apologized for doing so. We accept her apology."
As part of a wider programming shift at the network that has taken place throughout 2017, Hill and co-host Michael Smith were promoted to the 6 p.m. ET "SportsCenter" from the noon slot in January. A few months later, ESPN announced more than 100 layoffs of on-air reporters, editors and other editorial talent to cut costs and put greater emphasis on digital platforms.
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