Ukraine v England: A Watershed Moment for Broadcast Media?

Detail of air inlet on SR-71 61-7962, American Air Museum, Imperial War Museum, Duxford - May 2009

They say there's no real water-cooler moments any more: that the days when communities or nations were brought together by must-see TV have gone. Yet news that live coverage of England's World Cup qualifiying match in Kiev is to be available only to pay-per-view subscribers to an internet feed looks could to be one of those rare instances in which disparate tribes find their allegiances converging. New and old media boosters alike will surely be looking at this state of affairs with their own brand of apoplectic derision - united in their condemnation of a deal that seems to work for anyone but the viewer.

On the one hand, the news that Kentaro will stream Ukraine v England online does seem to be a forward-looking move. And while, yes, there are vast swathes of the population who might want to watch who won't be able to, either because they don't have broadband or they don't own a computer, many of these arguments also apply to the migration of live sport to pay TV. That's a battle that has been lost, the business interests of those controlling football and the media corporations with pockets deep enough to come to an agreement with them converging to the detriment of the supporters, who have long ago realised that their convenience is the last thing considered in the equation, even while the amounts of money they're being asked to pay to attend games or watch on TV continues to rise. That a craven government acquiesced to pressure from media companies and money-hungry/vision-deficient sports administrators, and tore up the list of "crown jewel" events guaranteed a place on free-to-air TV, came as no surprise, even though it still felt like a betrayal. Even the denuded list as it presently stands is still too big, according to the usual suspects

The big difference here is that those who can't afford a Sky subscription and don't have access to a broadband connection won't be able to head to the pub to watch on the big screen: and this is where those who would see the internet broadcast as a step forward are likely to part company with the concept. By erecting a steep paywall around the match - £4.99 if purchased a few days in advance, rising to £10.99 for a last-minute decision - Kentaro and the Football Federation of Ukraine (who own the broadcast rights to their home internationals) have placed a finite limit on the number of people who will be able to watch. It's an object lesson in creating and selling scarcity - something the leading theorists of the new media economy consider stone-age thinking.

There are other objections, too: not least that the number of connections Kentaro feel able to supply will be capped at one million. While this is obviously a huge help to their business - they're turning this from a pay-per-view TV event into, effectively, a ticketed one, with a finite supply of tickets, doubtless aiming to engender a sense of urgency in potential customers ("we'd best buy it now before it sells out") - those who expect to see events of this type migrating from broadcast platforms will surely be disheartened to see Kentaro setting the bar so low. The potential demand for coverage like this doesn't get smaller just because the media marketplace is fractured and diffuse, so either this cap on viewers is just a marketing device, or it's strong and clear evidence that a highly experienced player in the new field of online football broadcasting (Kentaro have rights to around 90 per cent of Copa America matches) isn't really ready to compete on the delivery end with conventional broadcast media. Chances are, too, that there'll be plenty of people considering the idea, who will think about their experiences of watching even short video clips on YouTube or Vimeo, and thinking that ten quid's a bit steep for 90 minutes of what will be, for the majority who've never watched a Kentaro feed before, images of unproven quality. Even if the technology is ready, the PR groundwork hasn't been done to convince anyone that it is.

Looking at it from this angle, Kentaro don't appear to be in this for the long haul - either that or they're not ready to show us that they are. If they were, they'd have been confident to roll out a much larger number of connections, and they'd have marketed the match by giving it free to the first 250,000 to sign up. That would have helped generate some positive press, implied they have faith in their own ability to deliver a watchable, functional service, and - more important, surely? - made it easier to sell premium services to the UK football-viewing market in future. Instead, they've made the mistake football clubs have been making for more than a decade: they're convinced there'll be enough people who will pay anything to watch a football match - in this case, a football match which really doesn't matter that much - that they don't have to work to earn those people's business. The world is changing, and companies that think like that are playing no-win games with their futures. 


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