The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ESPN streaming deal and how TV is becoming entertainment for old people


To most Americans, Sunday is a fairly relaxing day. Not so for 31-year-old Chris Sweeney. He’s one of the millions who has dumped television and the cable set-top box for an Apple laptop and Netflix — and so lacks a reliable way to watch live sports. So come NFL Sunday, Sweeney scrambles.

He scours Reddit chat rooms for any mention of some bootlegged streaming service. Or he gets reacquainted with something called RojaDirecta, which promises sports that are “gratis y en vivo” — free and live. “Yeah, I’m pretty deep into trying to figure out what to do,” Sweeney, a Boston-based science writer, told The Washington Post. “I end up watching a lot of games in Spanish.”

Sweeney is part of generation that has, in a remarkably short time, shifted away from its parents’ notion of television, dramatically widening the landscape of mass entertainment.

Studies show nearly one in four millennials has either cut the cord to cable or never had it in the first place. Of all “cord nevers,” as media analysts call them, nearly 30 percent are between the ages of 18 and 34. Millennials watch around 44 percent of their television on the Internet. Already, 10 million American homes have Internet access, but not cable.

A generational divide over the very meaning of “television” has emerged. For high school students, it may mean YouTube. For millennials: Netflix. For mom and dad: perhaps the networks, the Weather Channel and maybe PBS.

On Monday, some big cable names moved to meet this generational schism. In a partnership with Dish, 12 major cable stations including the Food Network, CNN and, crucially, ESPN, will now stream their programs on a $20-per-month service called Sling TV. This is big news for many rabid sports fans who pay as much as $90 per month for a bunch of cable stations when all they really want is ESPN. They will now be able to watch sports on anything from an iPad to a smartphone — without paying cable companies such as Comcast and Verizon FIOS for television service.

The Post’s Cecilia Kang in her report called the highly-lucrative ESPN a “linchpin” that has long held the cable empire together. In the past several years, many believed the future of cable as we know it today rested on ESPN. “I’ve said this before, but I’d be willing to bet that the moment that major professional American sports leaps heavily into any kind of reliable, consistent streaming option, that that’s going to be the end of cable subscribers at the levels of the modern era,” wrote Techdirt reporter Timothy Geigner.

That moment has now arrived. Where the industry goes from here is unclear, but many analysts say it portends a new era of television focused on emerging consumers. “Sling TV provides a viable alternative for live television to the millennial audience,” Dish chief executive Joseph Clayton said Monday in a speech.

It will at least for Sweeney, who says Sling TV is definitely something he’ll consider. His stance on cable, which he abandoned years ago, reflects broader generational trends: frugality, distrust of large corporations and the ethos of a hacker. “Cable for one is outrageously expensive,” Sweeney said. “And a lot of the cable company packages are so hard to understand. You can’t just get cable. You have to get Internet and a landline or something else. … We’re a digital native generation and things like Netflix and Hulu make sense to us.”

Does the unpopularity of companies like Cox, Time-Warner and Comcast make him fear cable? “I don’t specifically avoid cable because I think Comcast is an evil company, but they’re a company that I definitely want to avoid,” he said.

Such feelings about cable are widespread among those between 18 and 34. Overall, according to a Media Consumption Survey of 2,400 people reported by Hollywood Reporter, the number of people who say they can’t live without TV has held steady in the past three years at 57 percent. But among millennials, that number has shrunk from 40 percent to 21 percent. Half of that demographic say they now can’t live without their smartphones. Three years ago, only 21 percent said that.

Other studies have found much the same. “TV is increasingly for old people,” a September Washington Post story said, citing a recent new findings by Moffett Nathanson Research. The research found that the median age for people watching TV is now 44.4 years old, a 6 percent increase in age over the past four years. It was even older for major broadcast networks, with the median age coming in at nearly 54 years old, an increase of 7 percent from four years ago.

“The shift in demographic viewing is caused by a combination of factors ranging from lower TV penetration rates among under-25 year old households to increasing use of time-shifting technologies in most under-55 year old households,” the research report said. The network with the oldest viewers was CBS, which broadcast to an audience with a median age of 59. Fox, meanwhile, had the youngest viewers among the big players, with a median age of 47.8 years.

In September, ESPN President John Skipper said he thought millennials would eventually age into getting cable. “We suspect they will trade up,” he said. “… I’m not sure you’re going to go to Google to watch the Rose Bowl.”

Monday’s announcement, just months after Skipper’s assertion, illustrates just how fast media — and how people consume it — can change. It also shows that people may not necessarily go to Google to watch the Rose Bowl, but they won’t think twice about going to ESPN on the Internet.