I like charts, and I love sports, so when I asked ESPN executives in New York how their company became the most valuable media brand in the world, I was delighted when Artie Bulgrin, director of research, answered my question with ... a bunch of charts.
ESPN deserved to be the richest cable channel in the bundle, he argued, because research showed that as the bundle grew over the last decade, our favorite channels multiplied, and certain networks rose and fell on the strength of their programming. But one thing stayed the same: ESPN has been the favorite channel among men every year since Clinton's presidency.
When I finished the column, I asked ESPN if they would share those charts with readers. They agreed to share the whole presentation. So here is the heart of ESPN Research+Analytics' annual survey of America's favorite TV channels. (Remember: It's ESPN asking people if they like ESPN, so grains of salt, and so forth.)
This chart illustrates one of Bulgrin's point about ESPN's consistent popularity: "Other networks need to create hits. We don't. People tune in to ESPN without even knowing what's on." Every few years, the History Channel and Discovery Channel have a hit that launches them into the top five (see: 2005, 2010-2012). But mostly, there's only room at the top for the four broadcast networks plus ESPN. NBC was the top channel for adults for nine straight years after 1998. Every year since 2006, it's been either ABC, NBC, or CBS.
This is the "money chart." ESPN is the favorite network among adult men, year after year. The History Channel makes a surprising showing, finishing second in six of the last seven years.
One of the most surprising things about ESPN is that, until the launch of Fox Sports 1 this month, no one channel has stood out as an obvious competitor.
Okay, this chart is a little confusing at first glance but it makes a simple point. As the number of channels has grown, the number of favorite networks has grown, too. ESPN would tell you this undercuts the argument that the cable bundle has "a lot of channels that nobody watches." (I would respond that there are a lot of channels that very, very few people watch or would miss if they were cut.)
Sports isn't like other programming because you can watch a drama whenever you like but games lose their social currency hours after they end. So, if you're going to be the worldwide leader in anything where live-advertising is a part of the business model, better make it sports.
ESPN has become synonymous with its subject in a way that few other channels have. MSNBC isn't the only place for politics. CNBC isn't the only place for business. The History Channel isn't the only place for quirky reality shows. But for the vast majority of viewers, ESPN is the only reliable place for sports on TV. And that's why it's the most valuable channel in the bundle.