ESPN's decision to shift Outside The Lines to lower-profile programming slots is having an effect on Sundays as well. Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch noted in August (item #10E) that OTL's first weekday ESPN2 broadcast averaged 160,000 viewers, less than half the average of 336,000 it pulled in for weekday ESPN airings. The related move of OTL's Sunday edition from 9 a.m. Eastern on ESPN to 8 a.m. on ESPN2, which took effect for the first time this past weekend, appears to have caused an even more precipitous ratings decline:
It is unfortunate that OTL lost so much of its audience (4.5 times as many viewers tuned in for the final Sunday on ESPN). The show does do some excellent journalism, even if it's mostly been in the news lately thanks to ESPN management pulling the plug on its concussions collaboration with PBS' Frontline (reportedly thanks to NFL pressure, which raises questions about just how intensely ESPN will report on major NFL issues.). OTL has broken plenty of important stories on concussions and other beyond-the-field elements of sports over the years, and it would be nice to see the program's work continue to attract viewers. Of course, the 846,000 to 188,000 drop may not be entirely about the channel and timeslot move. This past weekend was the first Sunday of NFL action, so that means a plethora of pregame shows as competition for OTL. Still, this is a major downturn, and one where the new timeslot and channel likely played significant roles.
As noted when we covered this in August, though, ESPN is a business, not a public-interest journalism enterprise, and they're not obligated to give OTL a good slot if they feel they can do better numbers with other programming. You can't force people to watch (or read, or listen to) something. Thus, an important question is if ESPN's doing better or worse from an overall ratings perspective by moving OTL earlier and sending it to ESPN2. Also, if they are doing better, is the viewership gain substantial enough to make the PR hit they've taken from burying a famed program like OTL worth it? They replaced OTL's 9 a.m. Eastern ESPN slot with another edition of Sportscenter, which may or may not prove to be a stronger fit for that slot; no ratings were available for it as of Wednesday morning. It's notable that the new show airing at 9 a.m. Eastern on ESPN2 got beat out by OTL's showing in the earlier timeslot, though:
Outside The Lines on ESPN2 at 8 a.m. did draw more viewers (188,000) then debut of Colin Cowherd’s football show at 9am (187,000 viewers).— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) September 10, 2013
That may change over time too, with more viewers finding OTL at its new time, more people tuning in to Cowherd's new show or both continuing to draw low numbers relative to programming on ESPN's main channel. Still, it's interesting that one of the hot new shows from a Bristol perspective didn't manage to beat out OTL despite a stronger timeslot. For one week, anyway, a thousand more people tuned in to a legitimate journalistic show than Colin Cowherd talking football. We'll see if that trend continues, or if OTL will be forgotten now that it's in a weaker position.