If there is a clever sports analogy to describe Sony’s PlayStation Vue, it probably isn’t “home run.” The over-the-top TV service, which launched with a roar Wednesday in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, offers the most extensive package yet of cable networks available outside the traditional bundle, but it has a gaping hole without ESPN, the most watched channel on cable.
At first blush, that hole might signify a troubling weak spot for Sony, but it’s perhaps even more troubling for ESPN -- and its corporate parent, the Walt Disney Co. As over-the-top TV threatens to unleash unprecedented disruption on the long-profitable cable bundle, ESPN’s absence from Vue shows that no brand is essential and no network is safe from the uncertain future that lies ahead.
According to a Wednesday research note from Brandon Ross, an analyst with BTIG, “even ESPN is at risk as the bundle frays.” His comment comes two days after BTIG downgraded Disney stock to "neutral" after almost five years of a "buy" rating. Although the media giant recently ended a stellar year thanks to the megahit “Frozen” and solid theme-park attendance, BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield said Monday the company is approaching full value, and even a slight miss by one of its key upcoming franchise films, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and "Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” could mean losses across Disney’s film, theme park and merchandising divisions.
“We believe it is important,” Greenfield wrote in a Monday research note, “to consider what a miss by one of these franchises might look like.”
Meanwhile, cord-cutting trends and slimmer bundles are converging with a general decline of TV ratings to create a perfect storm of head winds for the Mouse House. “Disney is clearly best positioned among its broadcast/cable network peers, with its must-have sports-driven ESPN networks and non-advertising-driven Disney channels,” Greenfield wrote. “However, we are increasingly struggling with the question of whether anyone in the sector can flourish as consumer behavior shifts away from traditional television viewing, not to mention a complete lack of interest in wasting time on commercials.”
This is the second notable downgrade for Disney this year. Topeka Capital Markets downgraded the stock from "buy" to "hold" in January.
Cable has long been one of Disney’s most profitable business segments, and ESPN is its centerpiece. It’s not only the most-watched cable network on TV, but it’s also the most expensive. Last year, research group SNL Kagan estimated that cable providers pay $6.04 per subscriber for the privilege of carrying ESPN, as the Wall Street Journal reported. It’s also the channel most often cited as the single reason why unsatisfied cable subscribers have not yet cut the cord.
Nevertheless, as subscription data shows, cable consumers are bailing out in greater numbers. In January, when Dish Network launched its over-the-top service Sling TV, the inclusion of ESPN was seen as an advantage that could make or break the product. Now ESPN’s absence from Sony’s Vue is being seen as an equally significant sign that someone, somewhere, dropped the ball.
And now we’re officially out of sports analogies.