ESPN Plans Thinner Bundle of Channels in Online Services

In Conversations With Dish Networks, Among Others

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ESPN President John Skipper.
ESPN President John Skipper. Credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

ESPN is working with partners to create online TV packages with fewer channels to lure subscribers who are canceling higher-priced cable contracts or not signing on in the first place.

The network, Walt Disney Co.'s sports channel, is talking with Dish Network Corp. and others about new packages, President John Skipper said Wednesday at a technology conference south of Los Angeles. Dish's Sling TV already offers a so-called skinny bundle that includes ESPN's live sports and analysis shows.

Sling "has brought in new people to the pay-TV universe, and ESPN is a driver" of that, Mr. Skipper said in a speech at code/media, a conference by technology news website Re/code. "We plan to discuss bringing in new packages with other providers."

After increasing the selection to hundreds of channels for cable customers, pay-TV providers have been scaling back to stem cancellations. ESPN has avoided a pay model that includes only its programs because it has benefited from fees paid by cable companies with large subscriber bases.

ESPN, Disney's biggest single profit generator, charges pay-TV operators the highest price per subscriber of any network. Mr. Skipper said the decline in cable subscribers was not surprising.

ESPN just had the best year in the history of the company, Mr. Skipper said. The network's collection of sports rights and digital assets will lead to steady growth in advertising sales and affiliate fees, outpacing the growing cost of sports rights, he said.

Apple and Amazon.com have also explored creating online TV packages that offer viewers a set selection of programs at a monthly price, though Mr. Skipper declined to discuss any negotiations.

"ESPN is not a drag on the Walt Disney Company," Mr. Skipper said. It wouldn't make sense to sell ESPN programs directly to consumers over the Internet, he said.

"There are lots of people who want ESPN, and its our task to figure out how to get packages to ESPN that work for them," Mr. Skipper said.

-- Bloomberg News

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