I never got the whole blogging thing, at least not as it was practiced by the likes of Andrew Sullivan, Ezra Klein, or Rod Dreher. My writing tends to come in two sizes: BreakPoint Radio commentary size, 550-600 words, and column size, about 1000-1500 words.
But what happens when you don’t have 1000-1500 words to say about something and it isn’t the kind of thing we talk about on BreakPoint Radio? The answer is this column, in which, begging my editor’s indulgence (and yours), I want to say things about two different stories: one of which you haven’t heard about, and one that you probably have.
Now This Is the Resistance
The first is this story from the Indian magazine The Week. It tells the story of a guerilla army like no other: the National Socialist Council of Nagaland. Nagaland is a state in northeastern India. On a map, it’s easy to think that it’s part of Burma. On the ground, the idea is only strengthened. The Naga people have little, if anything, in common with their 1.2 billion fellow Indian citizens. They look, well, different, and nearly 90 percent of them are Christians, the vast majority of them Baptists.
The Naga have resisted their incorporation into India since the British quit the subcontinent in 1947. Groups like the National Socialist Council (socialist Baptists!) have waged a decades-long low-level guerilla war against Delhi.
Now it appears that a truce/settlement may be in the offing. What struck me about the story is summed up in the title: “Bullets & The Bible.” A female guerilla sings “Celebrate the victory of the Lord, He has done magic things yet again. God, He’s good to me! Hallelujah!” Apart from the fatigues and—I’m guessing—the AK-47 in the picture, it could be a scene from any ordinary church.
We talk a lot about the persecution of Christians here at the Colson Center. Ninety-nine or more percent of the time, our brethren turn the other cheek. But not always. I don’t know what, if anything, to make of this.
The Shopping Mall of the Airwaves?
I have a better sense of what to make about the recent mass layoffs at ESPN. More importantly, I know what not to make of them: trying to draw a line between ESPN’s perceived increasingly liberal slant and the financial problems that prompted the layoffs.
That connection recently got a boost from something longtime anchor Linda Cohn said on a New York radio show. She told the hosts that such things as ESPN’s giving Caitlyn Jenner its Courage Award and its coverage of the Colin Kaepernick national anthem controversy put “old school viewers . . . in a corner,” and that the network “forgot its core.”
In Cohn’s words, “I don’t know how big a percentage [of viewers felt alienated] . . . but if anyone wants to ignore that fact, then they’re blind.”
Point taken. But as Cohn herself makes clear, ESPN’s problems go far beyond any liberal bias, real or perceived. ESPN’s problem, the one that made the layoffs necessary, is that its business model no longer works like it used to. As Sports Digest put it, “ESPN is No Longer a Cash Cow” for its parent company, The Walt Disney Company.
To understand why, first, here’s a quick summary of that business model: ESPN, like all other cable networks, charges cable companies (and satellite services like Direct TV) a set fee per subscriber. The cable company then passes that cost on to subscribers. These fees, plus fees charged to advertisers, constitute the vast majority of ESPN’s revenues.
Currently, that set fee is $9.06 per subscriber per month. That is far and away the most charged by any cable network, and not much less than many cable subscribers pay for HBO, which comes with a huge “On Demand” library and a streaming service that you can watch on your mobile devices or on your television via Amazon’s Fire TV or Apple TV.
By way of comparison, AMC, home of “The Walking Dead,” gets only 67 cents per subscriber per month. Others sports networks get anywhere from 14 cents to $1.86 per subscriber per month.
When you multiply $9.06 times 12 times 93 million (the number of cable and satellite subscribers), you get more than $10 billion a year plus advertising and merchandising revenue. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?
It used to be. It no longer is. Why? Because of two distinct, but ultimately related, factors. The first is that the amount ESPN and other television networks are paying for rights fees to the NFL, NBA, and big-time college athletic conferences is going through the roof. ESPN is three years into a nine- year $12.6 billion deal with the NBA. That was only one several major deals signed at around the same time that saw rights fees increase anywhere from 73 to 391 percent.
Now, there’s little, if any evidence, that big-time sports are 73, never mind 391, percent more popular. That’s why several people have called the increase in rights fees a “bubble.” If that word brings to mind the events leading up to the events of 2008, it should. The housing bubble was made possible, in significant part, by the belief that housing prices could only go up, and, therefore, there was little risk in paying more for a home than you could prudently afford.
With ESPN and other sports networks, the belief was that you could pass on the increased rights fees to cable and satellite subscribers—most of whom are, at most, casual sports fans—indefinitely. This folly was aided by the cable industry practice of “bundling,” where channels like ESPN were included in your package whether you wanted them or not. (By one estimate, sports channels account for 40 percent of the average cable bill.)
And that brings us to the second, related, factor: Cable television is losing subscribers. There are many reasons why, but most of them come down to cost. Pay television either has become too expensive or does not offer enough value for an increasing number of Americans. The average cable bill is around $103 a month, and that does not include Internet service.
When you consider that cable subscribers watch, on average, only 17 out of the 189 channels they are paying for, it’s little wonder that an increasing number of people are “cutting the cord.”
The bottom line is that ESPN has lost 10 million subscribers in the past few years.
ESPN’s response to this weakening of their business model? “ESPN thinks it will continue to grow its subscriber revenue by charging its remaining subscribers (via pay TV distributors) more for the service, and that it can keep growing ad rates, too.”
Think about how odd that sounds. You are losing customers, in part because cable bills have gotten too high, so you are going to charge the remaining ones more. Fewer people are watching your product, so you will increase the amounts advertisers pay.
It’s as if a mall, half of whose tenants have left, decided to raise rents on the remaining stores, and these stores, in turn, decided to raise their prices. Yeah, that ought to work.
Now, given the tottering quality of ESPN’s business model, risking alienating its most loyal viewers, as Cohn suggested is the case, is foolish. While the number of people who drop their cable subscriptions just because ESPN gave Caitlyn Jenner its “Courage” award in 2015, or because they didn’t care for its coverage of the Colin Kaepernick story is, in all likelihood, quite small, why risk it at all?
But, ultimately, the Worldwide Leader’s problems aren’t really about culture and/or politics: they are about our increasing unwillingness to spend $100 or more a month for pay television. To insist otherwise is to let a convenient story get in the way of the facts.
Image courtesy of werbeantrieb at iStock by Getty Images.