You come into this column with a choice: read on, or go and do something else.
A few weeks back, our friends at the digital agency Seven League, who may be getting used to being referenced here just now, identified their seven digital trends to look out for in 2019. One of these was interactivity becoming a more compelling proposition for viewers than immersive content like virtual reality (VR).
The elements they suggested looking out for were those that will make watching sport more like following video game streams on Twitch – the chance to watch with and talk to friends, for example, or to make more use of a second screen. Some of the concepts the report picked up on, as well as the medium-range prospect of new augmented reality (AR) experiences, were the Facebook Watch Party service or Eleven Sports’ new ‘Watch Together’ feature.
In the entertainment space, meanwhile, there was an altogether more radical development over the Christmas period. In case you somehow missed it, Bandersnatch is an experimental new entry in Charlie Brooker’s dystopian sci-fi series Black Mirror. The discomfiting psychological thriller appeared with little fanfare, save for a short online trailer, to spark discussion of how profoundly it could affect scripted drama.
Set in the mid-1980s heyday of homebrew British computer game coders, Bandersnatch is Netflix’s first piece of interactive television. At various points in the action, it offers the viewer a pair of on-screen choices that set the narrative on a different route as the lead character comes to ruminate in growing panic on just how much control he actually has over his real-life decisions.
Bandersnatch is self-consciously based on the nested create-your-own adventure novels that emerged a generation ago, and it may well be that its impact on viewing habits is about the same as those books have had on reading. Brooker has already said there will be no more interactive releases in the Black Mirror anthology, given the complexity of plotting and shooting multiple story strands and endings.
Stories that yield multiple resolutions could keep fans watching longer and returning to the same shows more often, as well as generating richer sets of information about viewers’ preferences and personality types.
Netflix, however, is more enthusiastic about the prospect and is planning further interactive shows in the near future. That is instructive of how it thinks about its platform. Stories that yield multiple resolutions could keep fans watching longer and returning to the same shows more often, as well as generating richer sets of information about viewers’ preferences and personality types.
Active viewing may also be a good storytelling fit for a generation raised on more sophisticated interactive entertainment than the protagonists of Bandersnatch – huge, sprawling sandbox video games with production budgets of a similar scale – and alive to the tactile possibilities offered by mobile devices. More to the point, companies like Netflix are already on the hunt for differentiators in an increasingly competitive OTT marketplace. That is something that sports rights holders will need to keep an eye on.
With Amazon on the march and Disney on the horizon, Netflix has come under growing pressure. The Guardian notes that its negative free cashflow will reach US$3 billion to US$4 billion this year, with net debts rising 70 per cent year-on-year to hit US$8.34 billion at the end of September. In response, it has upped its spend on original content from US$8 billion to US$12 billion.
Netflix, unlike Amazon, has shown no appetite for live sport – though it is making high-profile investments in documentaries. Yet the dawn of Bandersnatch has given rights holders one more consideration to make as they plot their own course through the labyrinthine depths of digital media.
Sport is in its element as a passive and communal viewing experience, a natural fit for the traditional broadcast setup. What could and should sports broadcasting become in an era where media companies and consumers have a more active relationship? Does it position itself in opposition to more individualised trends at the risk of opportunities drying up? Or pursue fundamental change in a way that challenges its integrity?
The veteran former Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, predicted a couple of years ago that the day would come where soccer fans would make substitutions via digital polls. That may be a touch outlandish but there have been a handful of attempts to weave audience sentiment into the fabric of the contest, with Formula E’s FanBoost engine power-up the most prominent to date.
Of course, greater interactivity in watching sport could have nothing at all to do with affecting the actual outcome. In the immediate term, stats and text overlays, camera choices and other assorted AR wizardry will become a greater part of the mix. Formula E, again, plans to introduce a means for video game players to virtually race in real time against the participants of a live ePrix once the technology is up to speed. And it would be easy to envisage, for example, a cycling class remotely chase the peloton during a broadcast of the Tour de France.
Still, if there is one lesson the sports industry has been taught repeatedly over the past decade, it is that its conventions will not go unchallenged by changes in behaviour elsewhere. If the future of entertainment is about poking screens as well as watching them, all of that will bear thinking about.
Choose the right path.