50 years ago this week, the last great landmark in human exploration was reached as the crew of Apollo 11 flew to and then walked on the actual, no-fooling surface of the moon.
It’s an anniversary that will elicit nostalgia for a whole range of faded things: the music of the late 60s; mid-century design; the thought of an American president with the warmth, integrity and grace of Richard Nixon. Alongside that, many will recall a time when big news would bring everyone together in living rooms and shop windows; when it really did seem like the whole world might watch something together.
Communal viewing, of course, doesn’t live in some vanished age, even if the methods used to bring it about have changed. And it’s live sport, as much as news, that creates these global happenings most reliably through events like the Fifa World Cup final. On a national, regional or local scale, they happen all the time.
Increasingly, it seems, they happen at the same time. This has been an unusually busy summer for elite sport, with international soccer tournaments running concurrently and the Fifa Women’s World Cup bounding forwards in terms of prominence. That scheduling crunch came to a head for UK viewers last Sunday.
There’s an old joke about the 1966 World Cup final, reapplied to just about every other memorable occasion since, that for everyone who claimed to have been there to be telling the truth, Wembley Stadium would need about a million seats. A version of that might emerge in the years ahead when ‘the nation’ remembers the heart-stopping experience of England’s first ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup win at Lord’s. With Sky Sports releasing coverage to a free-to-air audience on Channel 4, about 8.3 million people watched the improbable climax of that tournament. Still, some in the years to come may sheepishly bury memories of staying tuned to the trophy presentations at Wimbledon.
A peak of about 9.6 million watched Novak Djokovic beat Roger Federer in their own historically lengthy encounter in the men’s singles, and between those epic finals in London and a Formula One British Grand Prix at Silverstone it was a good day to be holding the remote. All of those involved will have examined the national and international ratings contest. But what could provoke wider interest was the audience following everything across two or three devices, making the most of what SportsPro will keep insisting on calling Split Screen Sunday.
Formula One star Lewis Hamilton questioned the decision to schedule the British Grand Prix on the same day that two major finals were taking place in the UK
Sports media has long got quite comfortable with the idea of people following more than one game at a time from a specific competition. The NFL Red Zone has been giving fans a chance to keep up with touchdowns from across the US on Sundays for several seasons, and it’s a concept that has been ported with some success to soccer events around the world. There are, though, very obvious qualitative and logistical differences between catering to viewers in one competition and a whole range of them.
A media company would need access to rights, for one thing, to cover every audience in a scheduling collision. And broadcasters that are in the enviable position of being able to pull that off will want to understand what the implications are on fans’ attention, given that rapt engagement is such a big part of what makes sport so appealing to investors.
A viewer tracking the final day of a Premier League season is being drawn in various directions but retains the same focus on English soccer’s top flight as they would while watching a single game. What quality of attention is being paid, on the other hand, by someone with their left eye on Novak Djokovic and their right on Jofra Archer? That’s a question with a knock-on effect for sponsors and advertisers, as well as the principals.
Still, as the sporting calendar gets more crowded, broadcasters have every incentive to investigate how a multi-screen, multi-sport experience can work. In Australia, the Foxtel and Fox Sports-backed OTT service Kayo Sports launched in November with a couple of eye-catching features for fans with broad interests. One is a split-screen option that allows viewers to watch up to four streams at once. The other is a ‘spoiler-free’ stream, which interrupts any notifications about scorelines and incidents for those joining the action late.
The performance of these services will need to be up to the mark. The OTT environment may be better suited to multi-screening than traditional platforms, but the more reasons there are for fans to watch away from or as well as traditional television, the more important it becomes to meet the technical challenge of reducing latency and improving reliability.
If this does go on to represent a deepening trend, rather than an occasional phenomenon, it will be intriguing to see how rights holders respond. The National Basketball Association (NBA), already a pioneer in the distribution of live content, has brought Kate Jhaveri over from video game streaming platform Twitch to be its new chief marketing officer. Collaboration and amplification, meanwhile, have been a part of digital strategies for some time – the social media accounts for Wimbledon and the International Cricket Council (ICC) swapped messages as things got tense on Sunday evening.
Whether that spirit could be applied to cross-promotion of live coverage might be another matter. Nevertheless, this is an age of divided attention: of reading articles while listening to podcasts, or playing mobile games while watching the news. And with golf’s Open Championship sharing airtime with the Tour de France, the Netball World Cup, athletics’ London Anniversary Games, the baseball season and European soccer’s pre-season this weekend, there will be more fans devising bespoke viewing plans.
Half a century after gazing at the moon through their TV sets, people are still watching things together. The question is, what else are we all watching?