With restaurants, bars and clubs closed, you might assume that Covid has created a surge in live TV viewing, but it has not. If you compared U.S. TV audiences in September 2020 with the previous year, all television watching was actually down 10% during prime time. This may seem counter intuitive considering that the average time spent interacting with media has shot up 17% to a whopping 12 hours, 21 minutes a day according to Nielsen’s Total Audience Report for August. However, digging into the reasons why reveals important opportunities to re-engage audiences.
There has long been a simplistic narrative that live sports viewership is declining. Yet the reality is that huge amounts of sports content is still being consumed. And that number is growing, especially in international markets. The change is predominantly around two axes. The first is that sport is no longer “the only game in town.” It must co-exist within a much wider array of activities. The second shift is that fans are redefining what “sport” content means to them – along with how they want to consume it.
This diversity of content is highlighted by 2020 offering up another landmark. As the year when time spent using an app and/or web via a smartphone or tablet finally overtook live and time-shifted TV. This cross-over has undoubtedly accelerated due to Covid, given increased home working, less travel, and more screen time. However, the data has been moving that way for a few years. Nielsen also points out that 25% of total TV consumption is via streaming. This includes the rise of highlights and “instant” sports news services that are the equivalent of fast food compared to the three-hour banquet of a typical NFL game.
Highlights packages are not new but what has changed is the way in which they are delivered. The big networks have jumped onboard. Fox, ESPN, and others have now added more content available via the web. Yet the mindset for many is still around the “big game” and reporting that fits into a traditional schedule.
In a generation, Netflix transitioned from renting a million DVDs through the mail to touching 200 million monthly global subscribers. However, sports media still trails behind the curve when it comes to the model of instant access.
Bleacher gets it right
However, sports publications like Bleacher Report highlight one possible direction. The Turner owned brand has always delivered exquisite reportage but its rapid diversification into video and social has been striking.
Its “House of Highlights,” an Instagram feed offering highlight clips across several sports, now reaches over 20 million subscribers. Their viewership that has grown 150% in just two years. Highlights describes itself as “Everything you need to see in sports and youth culture.” It offers huge amounts of user generated content. And, while this content is still sports themed, it has much broader in its appeal – especially to younger audiences.
Bleacher is joined by a growing cohort of app and clip-based ways to consume sports content including CBS Sports and Fotmob – with the latter particularly good at notifications. If done well, personalized mobile app notifications, can drive customers into full game viewing as well as scores and highlights.
These brands and others recognize that it’s not all about the game. They help people get their highlights and sports fix from following athletes, teams, leagues, and media companies via social on the go. They also feed the growing sports engagement around fantasy and sports betting. However, these data points do not necessarily translate into full game viewing.
The fear of cannibalizing traditional TV audiences through online offerings is still deeply ingrained in the psyche of TV executives. But instant gratification culture means that failure to offer a wider buffet of visual sport experiences will make decline inevitable.
And it’s not just creating a like-for-like facsimile. The audience expectation of TV watching versus engaging with on-demand via smartphone, embedded highlights on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, or the cacophony of social-led platforms requires producers to rethink program formats.
This raises several challenges. It starts with nurturing a new generation of creatives that are digital natives, with the ability to engage with fans of today. There’s also a need for technical retooling to simplify the production and distribution process. This enables content to be disseminated easily across multiple platforms. It needs to be done efficiently and with the controls in place to ensure that rights obligations are enforced as demanded by contract terms. Last, but no means least, is the ability to monetize multiple platforms by spreading CPM across a wider reach and unlocking far more targeted advertising models.
A great example of innovation in action is NFL RedZone, an all-in-one channel that when a team reaches the 20-yard line, (i.e. the “red zone”) cuts to the local broadcast of that game. The channel also offers the option to watch any turnovers, game-changing plays and scoring plays outside of the designated area. RedZone also has an “octabox” mode with simultaneous 8 game highlights designed for fantasy football fans.
This ability to deliver “highlight packages on the fly” uses dynamic playlists. It is is part of a surge in Cloud based technologies that are leading the charge to build streaming platforms that can pivot output to match the increasingly diverse audience profile.
The long-term issue is more cultural than technical. Live sport is still a huge deal in terms of direct and ad-related revenue. Messing with a successful formula is certainly a hard call to make. However, the Bleacher report and its siblings illustrate ways to respond to a shift in audience demand. Ignoring the opportunity makes the prospect of an empty dinner table much more likely.