Watch out, TV - nobody’s forcing us to tune in to you

Sport

Watch out, TV - nobody’s forcing us to tune in to you

Would you subscribe to DStv if it weren’t for SuperSport? And what if there were a better way to get your fix?

Journalist

Sport’s revolution will not be televised. Instead it will be streamed to any number of devices near you. One of them is probably in your pocket or in your hand. You could be reading this story on it.
Your television? It will go the way of the dear old landline telephone, these days a significant presence only in the workplace and probably only until current contracts with service providers run out.
People who make televisions and programming know this. That’s why modern sets are able to connect to the Internet, and why programming that was never intended for television is bought by their suits and broadcast on their channels.
These are desperate measures by a medium that knows it’s in the departure lounge of society, that it will be killed off by a better idea that is already upon us.
Television will not be able to save itself that way any more than carphones, once considered a great leap forward from landlines, were able to stave off their extinction by the still soaring popularity of that sleek object you’re holding in your hand.Sport is at the centre of all that. The embarrassingly badly run SABC is past the point of redemption, its announcement on Monday that Bafana Bafana and Banyana Banyana games will disappear from its screens hardly a surprise after last week’s news – since rescinded – that it couldn’t even afford to put Premier Soccer League matches on radio. But would you subscribe to DStv if it wasn’t for SuperSport?
Even if you have a thing for the crappier movies out there, or can’t bear the thought of not being able to watch endless reruns of some hammy series, or have to put up with children who become ungovernable if they can’t watch cartoons, or you are a news junkie, your decision to keep paying MultiChoice R969 a month is likely to be tightly tethered to your interest in sport.  
That’s not only true here in SuperSport country. In the US last year 60 of the top 100 prime time live broadcasts among people aged 18 to 49 were sport events. The only exception in the top 10 was the Oscars.
So, why is television in trouble, considering it gives its audience what they want? Because that audience is finding there are other, more convenient, less prescriptive, cheaper ways to get what they want without having to put up with – and pay for – all the stuff they don’t want. One of these years the idea of a “channel bouquet” will be like memories of the Rubik’s cube, that thing we all used to have when we also all had telephones that weren’t cellular.Boxing, like it has been so often, is ahead of the game – all the other games. Floyd Mayweather jnr asking fight fans for $89.95 or, for HD, $99.95 in pay-per-view fees to watch him take on Conor McGregor last August sounds like a newfangled notion. But the original idea was hatched when Joe Louis and Jersey Joe Walcott ducked through the ropes at Yankee Stadium in New York in June 1948 in the first sport event sold on closed-circuit television to paying patrons gathered in cinemas far and wide.
The Mayweather-McGregor fight was on Showtime, a cable television service, and could be ordered through several providers of what Americans call cable. For those who have seen life after television it was also available on a range of streaming services. But that doesn’t mean television is safe as long as it plays nice with the geeky newish kids on the block who prefer code to Coke, or even to coke.
Naspers, which owns SuperSport, is trying to pass itself off as hip and happening. In its 2018 annual report, under the heading “Who we are”, it describes itself thus: “Founded in 1915, we are a global Internet and entertainment group and one of the largest and most successful technology investors in the world.”
Snarkier readers might wonder how Naspers was, in 1915, part of something that didn’t exist until 1990, when the Internet was invented. Others might wonder why it isn’t keen to reveal up front that it remains, as it was originally, a newspaper publisher and printer (Naspers is a contraction of Nasionale Pers, or National Press) before becoming a television baron.Because it and its ilk are trying to stay relevant in a world that increasingly sees them as money-sucking middlemen. Television is being squeezed from both ends of the broadcast equation: its consumers prefer to connect directly with the source of what they want to watch – the producers of sport, news and entertainment – and those sources are becoming more attuned to firming up those connections.
Formula 1 fans will this year be able to subscribe, for between $8 and $12 a month, to a service that will give them live coverage during races from in-car cameras. They’ll also get practice, qualifying, press conferences and pre- and post-race interviews.
That sounds a lot like what you will see if you tune in to SuperSport during the F1 season. Except that the service is being sold by Formula 1 itself.
Who needs television when the means of broadcast production are within reach of anyone with a smartphone and a decent Internet connection, much less F1’s resources for producing quality content?
It’s called an OTT (over the top) platform and it’s becoming the go-to option for many sports, albeit at this stage the smaller codes that struggle to attract fusty old broadcasters. Now all those barefoot-waterskiing fans have somewhere to watch the stuff, and to hell with television.But how long will it take for football, rugby, cricket, tennis, golf and athletics, and the Americans and their sports – most of which already produce plenty of their own video content – to wise up to the fact that they don’t need to sell rights to make money if they can flog advertising and pay-per-view plans instead?
Only as long as broadcasters can afford to pay them enough to make it worth their while not to go it alone. The bubble has to burst, perhaps when subscribing to a service like DStv costs significantly more than, say, R1,000 and sport’s consumers decide to put those funds into a fibre internet connection instead.
This is already happening in the US, where ESPN is haemorrhaging subscribers from its cable television service while gaining many for its streaming services. That’s led, in other ESPN publications, to a scramble to catch the wave and to massive staff cuts. Those who remain at, for instance, websites that were built on quality long-form writing now find themselves working for a video-driven publication.
Like all of us they will be keen to see how Cristiano Ronaldo gets on in his first game for Juventus, which will be against Chievo on August 18.
No longer have a television? No worries: the game will be streamed live on Facebook. For free …

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