There was a time when Christmas TV brought the whole of the UK together: 30 million viewers watched EastEnders on Christmas Day in 1986. 25 years later the top-rated Christmas show was again EastEnders but the audience was just under 10 million. There are significant consequences of this audience fragmentation, not least for sport.
From the early 1990s until a couple of years ago the declining audiences could be attributed to the huge increase in the number of TV channels available. Since 2008, however, the launch of on-demand services such as BBC iPlayer and equivalents on other channels has added a new range of competition to network TV. The UK scene has become particularly complicated in the last few months with the arrival of Amazon company Lovefilm, the relaunch of YouTube, Sky Go, the availability of on-demand TV channels via Microsoft’s Xbox, and the imminent arrival of Netflix, which has been a huge success in North and South America.
The outcome for consumers (apart from total confusion) is that they can watch more or less anything at any time on any device with a screen.
So what does this mean for sport?
1) Sport can provide a larger proportion of “shared national moments” than in the past
There are few network TV shows that can now reach a huge audience with a single broadcast. A handful of reality programmes and major news items (covered on multiple channels) manage to do so. Sports events such as Wimbledon, the Grand National and England football matches in the World Cup and EURO also provide these “national moments”. A fair number of sports have occasional opportunities to join this list, when they have a popular British star or team who is expected to perform well in a major tournament. The reward for sports that get it right is significant – cyclist Mark Cavendish won the 2011 BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, which would have seemed implausible a few years ago.
2) Premium sports events become ever more attractive because of their ability to draw a live audience
It’s a familiar story: the sports events which command large rights fees already tend to increase in value because they guarantee eyeballs across various platforms for live broadcasts. However, regulatory changes could have a big impact over a period of time as governments and the EU adjust to advancing technology.
3) It’s more difficult than before to draw an audience to watch a sport or event which is unfamiliar
The chance of consumers stumbling across a sports event on TV by chance and watching it is presumably declining all the time. If you don’t actively select sports channels on the various TV platforms and you don’t flick through network channels, you’ll miss the event. Unfortunately, the probable consequence is that all sports apart from the most premium properties will be restricted to channels with low audiences or pay-per-view systems which only existing fans will watch.
4) Magazine sports shows may be worth another go
Magazine-style sports shows still exist but they tend to be cult or niche programmes (such as Soccer Saturday and World Olympic Dreams) rather than the mass-market Grandstand of years gone by. With the right approach and access to highlights clips (regulatory changes may help here) there could be a decent audience for a magazine sports show which can be watched as it is broadcast or on demand in the following days. To be successful such programmes would need to provide content across a range of digital channels, not just a TV show.
In conclusion, sport provides exciting live content which will always appeal to TV viewers but sports rights-holders face an increasingly difficult challenge to devise and implement a broadcast strategy.