Why NBC Sports Network’s Shutdown This Month Could Be a Sign of Cable TV’s Bleak Future

·5 min read

NBC Sports Network, abbreviated NBCSN, was supposed to be Comcast’s attempt to create its own national cable sports network — even though NBC Sports was not nearly as bullish as Fox in taking on ESPN as the dominant cable destination for sports.

But less than a decade after trying to compete in the cable sports space, the network is shutting down for good next week — a harbinger of the troubled times the entire cable TV industry is facing amid the shift from traditional TV viewership to streaming. In fact, NBCUniversal has decided to sacrifice NBCSN to save USA Network, as well as give more sports content to the company’s upstart streaming service, Peacock.

“As more and more people have decided to either cut the cord or not buy the big bundle today, a lot of standalone cable networks were getting diminished value and diminished pickup,” Jon Miller, an NBC sports group senior executive, told TheWrap. “The combination of that, along with USA Network, which is a super power station, which has much greater distribution and NBCSN and the idea that we could take our marquee properties and combine it with the No. 1 entertainment cable network out there, makes for an incredibly powerful offering, not only for viewers but also for cable distributors.”

When the network first launched in 1995 as The Outdoor Life Network (OLN), it primarily featured fishing, hunting and other outdoor activities. After airing the Tour de France, the network relaunched as Versus in 2006. Following Comcast’s acquisition of NBCU from General Electric in 2011, executives announced their intentions to merge Versus within NBC Sports and create a new national sports cable channel.

The rebranded NBC Sports Network debuted in 2012, boasting top sports draws as the NHL (including Stanley Cup Final games), the Olympics and the English Premier League. When NBC took over the network, they were saddled with a hodgepodge collection of sports offerings that struggled to gain traction.

“I think it was in 64-65 million homes at that time [when NBC took over the channel] that had a programming lineup, quite honestly, that did not have a lot of properties that people had to have,” Miller said. “They were a collection of audiences but they weren’t driving huge value. It wasn’t a lot of exclusivity. They really didn’t have anything that really drove enormous viewership or value.”

When NBC first announced back in January that it would wind down NBCSN, which will officially shutter on Dec. 31, many industry analysts blamed the pandemic, which has turned Hollywood upside down by accelerating the pace of many changes that were already happening. Miller argues that COVID did not play as big of a role as you might think in the station’s demise.

“This is not something that just came up in the in the spring and summer of 2020,” Miller said, adding that they had been discussing shutting down NBCSN for the last three or four years. “This was in place because we were able to see the trends and what was happening with cord-cutting and cord nevers and stuff like that. We realized that 2017-2018 was the height of cable penetration and that it was continuing to slow. And our feeling is we had to get out ahead of it.”

Miller is not wrong. At its peak, NBCSN was available in between 80- to 85 million homes from 2014 until 2020, peaking in 2017. In 2021? That number fell to 75 million amid an industry-wide decline in those who pay for some kind of TV or satellite service. That 75 million is similar to the distribution for Fox Sports 1 and ESPN, which will no doubt give those executives sleepless nights. Disney execs can at least content themselves — for now — that ESPN gets around $10 per subscriber and is by far the most expensive cable channel (at least 4 times more costly than every other channel).

But the warning signs for the entire cable industry are hard to ignore: The percentage of U.S. TV homes subscribing to a pay TV service has dropped from 82% in 2016 to 71% in 2021, according to Leichtman Research Group. That’s about 84 million homes. MoffettNathanson estimates that number could fall to 73 million by 2024, and eventually settle in at a “floor” of around 53 million homes.

On the ratings side, NBCSN has averaged 135,000 viewers each day, with 272,000 viewers in primetime. That would put it fourth among all sports networks.

On the positive side, Miller is bullish about what NBCSN’s disappearance means for both Peacock, which has not given any kind of subscriber update since the summer, and the company’s cable network USA. “USA has a long legacy of being in sports,” Miller said.

USA will be the primary new home for the sports that NBCSN carried, with some also moving over to Peacock. The streaming service already airs the majority of NBC’s Premier League matches, as well as simulcasts NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” and figures to be a major part of the network’s coverage of Super Bowl LVI in February and the Beijing Winter Olympic Games.

On Jan. 1, USA will kick off with a Premier League triple-header, led by a match between defending champion Manchester City and Arsenal. The network will also air more NASCAR, INDYCAR, Olympic Games and USGA tournaments. Miller sees USA playing a similar role for NBCUniversal that the two Turner networks do for WarnerMedia; TNT has both NBA and NHL rights, while TBS airs Major League Baseball. That’s along with Turner’s collaboration with CBS on March Madness.

“They had a lot of sports over the years but they’ve never had a concentrated sports strategy,” Miller said.