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Staggering subscriber losses for ESPN raise questions about the entire TV ecosystem

For the second year in a row, Disney may have another "Star Wars" hit on its hands. With this season's "Rogue One" debuting Dec. 16, the company is already poised to sell $130 million in U.S. pre-release tickets, according to early estimates. If those predictions hold, that would make "Rogue One" one of the biggest "Star Wars" movies in history, second only to last year's "The Force Awakens," which raked in nearly $248 million in its opening weekend.

But no matter how well "Rogue One" performs at the box office, the film's success may be overshadowed by Disney investors' rising concerns about another part of its business: ESPN, whose struggle to stay afloat in an era of TV disruption and cord-cutting has many shareholders spooked.

"Most of the Disney empire is healthy, but its stock price has been suffering to the downside because we have weak subscriber growth at ESPN," said Laura Martin, a media analyst at Needham & Company. "So that weak subscriber growth is a shadow over the whole empire."

ESPN and its siblings, such as ABC and the Disney Channel, generate an enormous amount of revenue. Together they account for the biggest chunk of Disney's business by far. In November, the company reported that its media networks pulled in $23.7 billion in income for the year, outstripping the next biggest segment, theme parks, by about 40 percent.

It wasn't that long ago that observers were calling ESPN "the most valuable media property in the United States," estimating its value at 20 times that of the New York Times Co. and five times the size of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

But mounting subscriber losses at the sports network have dragged down Disney's share price. In 2013, ESPN's subscriber count topped out at 99 million; Disney's latest regulatory filings last month show it has lost 9 million subscribers since then. Reports this year by the ratings company Nielsen seemed to punctuate those losses, suggesting that ESPN lost a record-breaking 621,000 customers between October and November.

Although ESPN disputed Nielsen's methodology, and Nielsen briefly withdrew its analysis, the firm later said it stood by the troubling numbers and released new estimates showing that an estimated 555,000 subscribers fled ESPN between November and December.

A spokesman for Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

ESPN is hardly the only programming company facing long-term pressure as consumers increasingly opt for Internet-based video streaming that undercuts the legacy cable bundle. TV providers such as Dish Network and AT&T have raced to offer packages of traditional channels as Internet-based apps; the outlook for those efforts is still uncertain, but some analysts say ESPN faces a steeper challenge than most because of the rapidly rising cost to the network of acquiring sports broadcasting rights.

"Let's face it - sports has changed," said Jim Hill, a longtime Disney analyst. "It's gotten so expensive . . . it's a scary time all around the barn right now for sports, and that's another thing that Disney's eyeballing." The cost of media rights for sports programming reached a collective $16.3 billion last year, according to a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers - up 50 percent from 2011. That figure is expected to grow another 30 percent by 2020.

The problem has prompted some analysts to propose that Disney spin off its ESPN unit. On Monday, Steve Cahall, a media analyst at RBC Capital Markets, suggested three arguments for Disney to sell ESPN. First, he argued, it would allow investors to gain a better understanding of Disney's profitability.

Second, carving off ESPN would leave behind a "smaller and more digestible" Disney - setting the stage for a potential future merger involving Disney and another company. And finally, selling ESPN would earn Disney some extra cash that it could plow into its remaining operations.

Earlier this fall, Liberty Media chairman and longtime media-industry titan John Malone had also speculated that Disney could explore a sale of ESPN. But some analysts are pushing back against the idea, saying there are institutional and logistical reasons Disney would be loath to sell off one of its key assets.

Disney chief executive Robert Iger tends not to micromanage parts of his business unless he perceives a serious problem, Hill said.

"He's a very, very, very hands-off guy as long as you're making money," Hill said. "The way Iger's thinking is, 'Look, I'm going to keep hands-off for a while until you guys figure it out.' "

The wave of customer defections from ESPN reflect the broader trend in U.S. media consumption; since the end of 2014, TV providers have collectively lost more than 3 million subscribers, according to research by Jan Dawson, of the market research firm Jackdaw Research.

Although the cable industry has recently been adding subscribers, that hasn't been enough to offset losses among other pay-TV providers, such traditional telecom companies.

Media executives are aggressively courting the 20 million U.S. households of cord-cutters or people who have never had a TV subscription. HBO, Showtime and CBS have all launched stand-alone video apps as a way to lure customers into paying for their television content.

ESPN, too, has a streaming app of its own - but it is limited in what cord-cutters can view there. The app reserves its best programming for traditional TV subscribers to prevent too many cable customers from migrating away. Eventually, ESPN may conclude that its subscriber losses are so great that the only way to retain those customers is to begin offering cable content more widely on the app, said Dawson.

"I do see ESPN eventually doing an HBO Now-style online service," he said. "I think it's inevitable."

Other analysts, however, argue that ESPN's outlook is not much worse than other companies in the media business. In fact, cushioned as it is by Disney's film and theme park businesses, ESPN may have some time to reverse its fortunes. By contrast, firms that are almost exclusively about TV, such as Discovery Communications or Scripps Networks Interactive, do not have that luxury, Martin said.

"They're losing subscribers, but they don't have theme parks to protect them," she said.

The upshot, according to Martin, is that if ESPN is truly at risk, the outlook for other types of programming may be even worse. After all, one key reason - sometimes, the only reason - consumers often cite for keeping their cable subscriptions is coverage of live sports.

Iger told CNBC last month that he remains confident in ESPN.

"We think the long-term revenue are going to be just fine," he said.