The slow, reluctant death of cable is entering its final stages; the end is inevitable, and it will be the sports that finally cut the cord for good. The dominance of Netflix and the continued rise of Amazon, Hulu, Yahoo, and other online streaming services have long threatened the livelihood of everyone who has a wired connection to their television. This isn’t particularly new. As a result, cable companies have attempted to lower prices, change options, and offer plenty of content online with various restrictions and constraints.
Despite these minor appeals, there has been one institution that has helped keep cable companies aloft: sports. The power of the live event keeps cable in play, but that won’t last for much longer.
Two of the biggest, most profitable sporting organizations in the world—the National Football League and the English Premiere League—are experiencing a ratings decline this year, something shocking and rare. It’s also alarming, but not necessarily for the leagues themselves. We are going to focus on the NFL here, but you need not be a sports fan to understand and appreciate what is happening. This isn’t just about the product, and while the NFL desperately needs to make some changes (eliminating Thursday Night games, codifying the rule book, understanding how marijuana and domestic assault are different, letting players have fun), the issue at hand is the evolving media landscape. And this isn’t new; we just have to pull back and see the big picture.
Nielsen Ratings Are Garbage
It’s beyond bizarre and indeed disingenuous that we use a metric for judging television ratings that was devised back in the 1940s; forget UHD, 3D, and DVR. Colour TVs weren’t even a thing yet!
Inexplicably, Nielsen ratings are still the standard tool, and that’s incredibly harmful. Here’s how they work, and while you’re reading, try and figure out where streaming, recording, and computers come into play. Like pollsters, Nielsen creates a statistical sample of how many people are watching what on TV, and then they extrapolate them and tell everyone what’s popular and what’s not.
The problems are myriad. Nielsen has a small sample size. It requires people to activate a box to keep tabs on what they are watching. How does Neilsen select the homes that get boxes? Well, at random, yes, but they have to get a hold of you somehow — and the younger generation isn’t exactly using landlines with readily available phone numbers. What’s more, TV ratings are more arcane than we think. The main figures we read are averages, not totals; in other words, they do not represent the number of people who tune in at any time to watch.
There are more issues, including the way in which next-day and next-week viewing are documented. At the same time, not everyone has a TV, and certainly no one needs one to watch programs. And you definitely don’t need cable. Which brings us to the next problem.
Cable Isn’t Great Either
The advent of NFL Redzone, a channel that operates on Sundays, jumping live from game to game without commercials, makes watching football much more enjoyable than staying on a single match. It appeals to those who love fantasy, gambling, and also those who have short attention spans (which is likely most of the people watching). But obtaining this channel can be complicated; you can get the Redzone Channel, but that doesn’t show primetime games. You can buy the GamePass, but if you’re in Canada, this also won’t get you primetime games — to see those, you need a package with TSN. If the lack of primetime doesn’t dissuade you, it is possible to both order RedZone singularly online or buy the channel along with the most basic of cable packages.
What’s more, it’s not hard to imagine that this godsend of a channel has siphoned off viewers from the main broadcasts, which, as we know, would affect Nielsen ratings. Oh, and NFL Redzone operates from the NFL Network, so they work directly with advertisers, and not with any other network to sell their product.
On top of that, the cable telecasts of the games are, for the most part, stale. Familiar voices — all men, of course, save for those women on the sidelines — repeat banal football dogma, contributing to a dull three hours. Fans love watching the game, but announcers (some of whom have been doing this for a long time), and bloated studio shows make the production around the game obnoxious and lackluster. A new platform would refresh the voices and the event itself.
Netflix Doesn’t Care about Ratings
Since Netflix began streaming original programming, the company has been coy when it comes to ratings. Only they have the means to track ratings, and they certainly don’t seem compelled to share. What’s more, there was no means to measure streaming and binging before; those Nielsen Ratings certainly don’t work in this model.
There are reasons why Netflix doesn’t need to share with the public. First of all, quality marketing and accolades work to attract viewers. More importantly, though, Netflix doesn’t sell ad space the way networks do. So they don’t need to show advertisers Nielsen Ratings so as to determine the money coming in. I wonder if the NFL could do the same thing!
As it happens, the NFL’s network deals with CBS, FOX, and NBC, which broadcast all but the Monday Night games (ESPN has a deal as well), will expire in 2022. When they made that massive, nine-year contract in 2014, wouldn’t you know it, they cited Nielsen ratings. We’ve still some time to go, but soon the NFL is free to go wherever they please to broadcast their games. So why not look ahead instead of behind? Streaming is the present, and while the NFL is slow to adapt, they should be ready in a few years.
The template is already there. The NFL teamed with Yahoo to stream games online. They’ve partnered with Twitter as well to do the same (and there are those hashtags). At the same time, they’ve had problems trying to figure out how to allow highlights to be posted online. So it’s not as though they are unaware of new media; they just need to harness this power.
Sports Are the Last Bastion
All of this means that cable is going to continue to die until it finally disappears, or at least changes so much that it’s virtually unrecognizable. The main reason to have cable, indeed, is the live event. Sports, as well as awards shows, require the viewer to be present in the moment, and streaming from some questionable (illegal?) outlet on a 60-second delay with poor quality, or trying to watch highlights the next day, can result in a massive loss of enjoyment.
But sports need no longer be held hostage by cable, by outdated rating systems, by advertisers who have yet to adapt. Amazon, Netflix, Yahoo, or someone will come in, buy the rights to the NFL broadcast for some massive amount, and the benefits to the fans are endless.
Just imagine, for a moment, NFL lovers. Staggered start times on Sunday. A subscription to Amazon that gets you every game, every replay, every highlight. More fantasy football integration, more ease of accessibility, watching from your tablet, phone, smart TV, and everywhere else you are. No more cords, no more cable companies, and no more Thursday Night games.