The times, as Bob Dylan once sang, they are a-changing.
But then they always are, right? A handy tip for aspiring folk troubadours: tie your rabble-rousing standard to one of life’s core paradoxes and it can be abused in a whole range of contexts. Like, say, as the opener for a column about changes in how people watch sport.
These are indeed changing times in media and it’s been the backdrop for a range of debates about how best to distribute coverage of major events, and what strategies will best encourage the long-term growth of individual sports. Technological advances might be the primary influence but other industries have shown where things can take unexpected turns.
That Dylan song can be accessed digitally in a whole range of devices but the fastest-growing medium for music is the one it was originally released on in 1964: vinyl. In publishing, sales of physical books have ticked upwards through a plateau of digital ebook sales - though digital audiobooks is the explosive growth sector there.
I recently attended a small press gathering for the launch of the 2019 Grabyo Global Video Trends Report, ahead of a behind-closed-doors industry event Grabyo was involved with at the Kia Oval cricket ground. The cloud-based video service provider surveyed 9,690 adults across the UK, the US, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Australia on their consumption preferences in terms of devices and media platforms.
That digital video consumption is rising would not be news to anyone but the headline finding of the report was that in those developed markets, more consumers were now stumping up for online video services than for traditional pay-TV. 50 per cent of those surveyed use some kind of over-the-top (OTT) service - led by the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video - compared to 42 per cent who subscribe to conventional platforms.
This trend was most pronounced in the US, where 41 per cent of respondents paid for online video services and a further ten per cent for YouTube Premium, compared to 34 per cent who still had cable or satellite packages. Value for money is an obvious driver but even when it comes to free video on social platforms, there are other factors at play. Those surveyed, especially among 18 to 25-year-olds, cited a lack of compelling programming or poor quality video as key reasons for not watching on social channels.
“Perceptions about media tend to drive behaviour,” said Grabyo chief executive Gareth Capon, part of the panel assembled for the media’s benefit. “You won’t necessarily always see those play out in traditional statistics and metrics. You also get a lot a lot of backward-looking metrics in the media industry.”
An example: attachment to pay-TV services - as in, the likelihood of consumers sticking with their contracts - fell through each of the age ranges surveyed. The over-50s were most committed: 65 per cent of those aged 50 to 64 and 72 per cent of those aged 65 and above had no intention of ending their subscriptions in the next five years.
Among those aged 36 to 49, that figure drops to 45 per cent and it falls further to 37 per cent among millennials. Financial security is one factor - the older in-work generations are typically wealthier and less indebted in all the markets surveyed - but so too are viewing habits.
Perceptions about media tend to drive behaviour. You won’t necessarily always see those play out in traditional statistics and metrics. You also get a lot a lot of backward-looking metrics in the media industry
Gareth Capon, Grabyo chief executive
The penetration of OTT services into the oldest age ranges, with 38 per cent of over 50s paying for digital video compared with 41 per cent using pay-TV, can likely be attributed to the distribution of those services on smart TV sets and through subscription bundles. A habit is a difficult thing to change but if you can work with it, rather than against it, you’re more likely to see success.
Analysing device use will be an interesting challenge for rights holders and broadcasters as they devise formats and schedules to maximise audiences. Smartphones were the most used device for video among all respondents under 50 but when it comes to live events, TV is still the baseline, even if broadcasters must work within the busier lifestyles of their viewers.
“Live sport is still largely appointment-to-view,” said DAZN vice president of PR, communications and new markets Sarah Beattie. “And that’s actually where we see that around 60 per cent of our viewing is on the TV at home, but it’s how we can provide the flexibility, the route into that in the first instance and adapt to people’s lifestyles so that when they do have to leave that live sport game they can carry on watching on their device, when they’re at a kids’ party or sitting at the back of a wedding or wherever else!”
Sport is unusual among other forms of media in how much more valuable and meaningful its live is. The role of supporting programming and content, in some part, will always be in service of that. And in a period where the roles of different social channels are becoming more defined, applying that content attentively will become more important.
“How we use content at different parts of that journey of getting people on to a live platform becomes muddier,” Beattie added. “The role of content in a free-to-air or off-platform environment becomes really interesting.”
But there’s another factor that can go unspoken in these kinds of discussions. Ritual: the deeper-held societal cues that inform more of our attitudes than we often record. It’s the reason people choose to watch some films in the cinema and some from the sofa; it’s the reason some prefer the physical transformation a book undertakes as it’s read, and why vinyl is finding a new life in an era of disposable digital.
It also explains the rebounding popularity of attending events among younger people and why so many fans try to recreate that experience in the home, whether for the big game or for Glastonbury. The abundance of digital video content makes most of it ephemeral and inessential. The challenge to sports broadcasters and rights holders is to frame their coverage in a way that shows it really matters.
“If you don’t have participation,” said Capon, “if you don’t have interest in the sport, then at some point it’s going to disappear because you’re going to have a generation of people who grow up and don’t care.”