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ESPN isn't the only cable network that suffered this year

ESPN has been making investors nervous. The network's rapid subscriber loss has been blamed for the Disney's weak performance this year, but the worldwide leader in sports certainly isn't alone.

More than 70 percent of the most widely distributed channels have lost subscribers in the last year, according to Nielsen data. Most television network owners have a channel that has done as bad or worse than ESPN's percentage loss since December 2015.

Overall, the number of households with cable or satellite hookups in the U.S. fell by 1.6 percent — those are people who disconnected entirely, so that figure represents a sort of minimum loss for widely distributed networks like ESPN (if you're already in every cable household, there's nowhere to go but down). That's why the median losses were around 2 percent for the most popular channels.

What makes ESPN unique among cable networks is the extremely high fees it charges distributors to offer the channel to customers. While that high price can be attributed to unique costs related to sports programming, it has also made the channel a target in slimmed down cable packages that aim to offer cheaper bundles with more personalized options.

Much of the network's revenue is estimated to come from those subscriber fees, and that revenue was down in the fiscal fourth quarter of 2016 despite higher contractual rates, according to the company's earnings call in November. Despite calls for Disney to sell the sports channel, CEO Robert Iger has expressed optimism about the property's future.

"We have taken a more bullish position on the future of ESPN's sub base," Iger said on the November conference call. "We think that while we were candid a year ago on sub losses, we believe that, to some extent, the causes of those losses have abated, notably the migration to smaller packages."

Disney has also challenged Nielsen's recent figures, which don't count subscribers on growing digital services like Sling or PlayStation Vue. Nielsen reviewed the data but stood firm behind its estimates. In a statement to CNBC, a ESPN spokesperson said that "no one is navigating change better than Disney and ESPN."

As of November, the channel's average Nielsen viewership numbers for the year (viewers aged 18 to 49) showed a drop of about 10 percent. Again, that's not outstandingly bad — about a quarter of channels did worse than that, and ESPN is still the No. 1 network — but it looks bad when you're charging $7.21 per month per subscriber. That's nearly four times more than the next most expensive channel, TNT at $1.82.

If viewers aren't committed to sports coverage, there are plenty of cheaper options for distributors to choose from.

Despite figures that paint a picture of a cable ecosystem in slow decline, a number of channels saw significant growth over the last year.

Those include channels with relatively small distributions like El Rey and Smithsonian, as well as larger channels like Hallmark Movies and Mysteries and Discovery's Velocity, which still have some room to grow in distribution. Only two of the biggest channels — National Geographic and Investigation Discovery — saw growth in the last year.

Hallmark Movies and Mysteries not only saw an 8 percent increase in subscribers, but also a 46 percent rise in average viewership, according to Nielsen's numbers. Part of the network's success had to do with giving squeezed distributors some good options at a lower price point, said Bill Abbott, CEO of Crown Media Family Networks, the Hallmark subsidiary that runs the channel.

"We offer great value and we offer it at a very fair price to our distribution partners," Abbott told CNBC. "They're saddled with sports rights that are through the roof and far more expensive than they have value, and they're looking for good value and networks that people actually like to watch, and we fit into both categories."

Back to the roots of cable

ESPN isn't the only network that has been collecting more money per subscriber for fewer viewers. The most widely distributed networks have lost about 2 percent of subscribers this year, but increases in fees have more than made up the difference for most networks, said a spokesperson for SNL Kagan.

Those relentlessly rising prices and lower returns on viewers could end up helping networks like Hallmark and Smithsonian, both of which have cut prices in recent years, according to the SNL Kagan data.

Abbott said that channels like Hallmark "go back to the roots of cable" by offering a strong brand at a reasonable cost. The company has no plans to bail out of the cable ecosystem or its partnerships with traditional distributors, he said.

"There's not an awful lot of room left to grow, so it's all about providing the best content possible," he said. "We're just absolutely on a roll in terms of how well we're doing, and it's a very exciting time."