On April 3, the day after Get Up debuted, ESPN issued a press release touting how strongly its studio shows performed in March. With regard to First Take, it was noted that the month was up 2% year-over-year, that the show’s audience had grown for nine straight months, and that it was the most-viewed first quarter of the year ever for the program. For that quarter, First Take averaged 474,000 viewers a day and was up 4% year-over-year.
More than halfway through April, that nine-month streak of growth for First Take is in serious jeopardy. So far, First Take is down about 5% year-over-year, though that drop pales in comparison to how Get Up is performing versus SportsCenter that aired from 7-10 a.m. ET in 2017 (while Nielsen records Get Up as a single three-hour program, SportsCenter was three separate hours, and for this table we calculated the average). All numbers are via Showbuzz Daily:
The n/a cells represent days that First Take was on ESPN2 because ESPN was airing Masters coverage. Here are some takeaways:
1. While this sure seems like bad news on the surface for First Take, and it’s never good to have a down month, the numbers can be pretty easily spun from their perspective. Whereas they were averaging an audience of 127.5% for the three hours of SportsCenter preceding it a year ago, they are now averaging 149.1% of the Get Up lead-in. This means they have a strong core audience that is tuning in even if it preferred SportsCenter to Get Up.
2. Even with that spin, if you gave Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman, Molly Qerim, and everyone else who works on that show truth serum, it’s a solid bet they would prefer Get Up and First Take both be up year-over-year rather than their percentage of lead-in numbers be up but viewership be down. How great a story would First Take have to tell if its lead-in was even flat?
Nevertheless, a person with knowledge of ESPN’s numbers said First Take continues to lead men aged 18-34 and 18-49 in cable viewership in its time slot. The person was unauthorized to speak publicly on the matter and requested anonymity. There are only 10 comparable episodes of First Take to draw from, so this is a situation worth monitoring even as it is not panic time quite yet. But: If this continues for months, will there be uproar from the First Take crew?
3. Just over two weeks in, it is still very early for Get Up. Months ago, I mocked Sage Steele’s interview with Dan Patrick where she stressed a nuts-and-bolts SportsCenter, but there is something to be said for the fact that for over two decades viewers have tuned in during the morning and expected standard news and highlights. I have heard this feedback from friends who are outside the sports media bubble and are unhappy that their routine has been disrupted (I prefer Get Up to SportsCenter because I’ve generally seen the highlights the night before and get my news on Twitter, and am therefore looking for more perspective and analysis, but so far the marketplace disagrees with me).
Get Up has a giant target on its back for a number of reasons. The salaries of Mike Greenberg, Michelle Beadle, and Jalen Rose combining to reach nearly $15 million (via Hollywood Reporter), coupled with an expensive New York studio and union production costs, left a sour taste in the mouths of many who have seen ESPN make persistent cutbacks in the face of cord cutting and live rights increases the last several years. When you add in the fact that since the idea’s inception few in the industry thought it would work, it is a recipe for potential disaster.
The fact that Get Up is down more than 15% year-over-year is concerning even though the show will have months to find its footing. Before the show launched, executive producer Bill Wolff told the New York Times, “We need to try to increase the number of viewers that come to us. That’s measurable. That’s tangible.”
4. There is a lot more competition now in morning sports television these days. NFL Network and MLB Network have critically acclaimed programs Good Morning Football and MLB Central. FS1 has First Things First siphoning a modest number of viewers who presumably would have been watching ESPN. It has always been a competitive landscape with regard to lifestyle and political shows, and that has only ratcheted up. That being said, those were all factors presumably affecting the SportsCenter lead-in to First Take’s best first quarter ever this year, so as far as this particular thought exercise goes they are red herrings.