The president said on Twitter on Friday morning that ESPN “is paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming). People are dumping it in RECORD numbers. Apologize for untruth.”
He was apparently referring to ESPN anchor Jemele Hill, who in a recent tweet said that “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.”
Hill’s assertion caused an uproar, particularly in conservative media circles, where ESPN’s political bent has been a point of contention for years.
Wall Street analysts and ESPN executives generally agree that ESPN’s subscriber losses are primarily a result of cost-conscious consumers and a changing business model.
But the president, through his tweet on Friday, sided with the conservative commentators who say it’s really liberal bias that is poisoning ESPN and dragging down the business.
His call for an apology is also noteworthy. Hill addressed the controversy earlier this week, but pointedly did not apologize for her “white supremacist” statement. She only expressed regret for painting ESPN in an unfair light.
ESPN said in a followup statement that the network accepted her apology.
The network clearly wants to move on — but Trump might make that more difficult.
Neither Hill nor ESPN immediately responded to the president’s Friday morning tweet, and ESPN did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Hill, an African American woman, has been an outspoken critic of Trump all year long. The current controversy erupted on Monday night she called him a “bigot,” a “threat” and a “white supremacist” on Twitter.
The next day, as people who were outraged by the tweets demanded action from ESPN, the network said that Hill’s tweets “do not represent the position of ESPN.”
“We have addressed this with Jemele and she recognizes her actions were inappropriate,” the network said.
When White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was asked about it on Wednesday, she said Hill’s criticism of the president should be considered a “fireable offense by ESPN.”
The next day, on Fox News, Sanders reiterated this: “I think it was highly inappropriate, and I think ESPN should take actions. But I’ll leave that up to them to decide, and I’ll stay focused on my day job.”
ESPN had 90 million subscribers as of September 2016, the most recent numbers it has reported. That’s down 2 million from a year earlier and down from a high of 100 million in 2010.
On Fox, it’s a popular talking point that those subscriber losses are due to rampant liberal bias. There’s little evidence to support that theory.
As the monthly cable bundle has become more and more expensive, and streaming has become more popular, some homes have dropped the big bundles that include ESPN, the priciest channel on cable. Others have discontinued cable altogether and turned to streaming services.
The vast majority of U.S. homes continue to pay for cable, including ESPN. But the cutbacks have put pressure on ESPN and other sports networks.
To address this, ESPN is planning to roll out a direct-to-consumer streaming service next year.