Broadcasting versus cable and satellite: Sports viewers and the evolving puzzles of television

The area on the tennis court midway between the baseline and the net is called “no man’s land”, and it is an area where players usually do not want to find themselves – too far away to hit the ball easily, too close to use groundstrokes on successful returns.

This might be a rough description of the state of sports TV consumption and where fans find themselves: caught between two competing poles, the expensive world of traditional cable TV and the newer, increasingly expensive world of broadcasting. These options are pulled from the same sports and, in some cases, the same event and even the same match, leaving fans either missing out or shelling out for more money than ever before. To get the best sports coverage, it’s not clear whether you want to rush to the broadcast, stay behind with old TV and broadcast TV, or a combination of the two.

Companies like ESPN (ESPN+), NBC (Peacock) and CBS (Paramount+) are balancing the need to satisfy consumers paying huge cable bills with the move into broadcasting, an area where these conglomerates have spent — What a pity Billions of dollars. While it is believed that everyone will broadcast one day, that day is not the day, and sports fans are caught between old and new world paradigms.

“There’s as much art as there is science,” said sports media consultant Lee Burke, about how sports broadcasters determine what’s behind the streaming paywall and what’s on traditional linear television. “You don’t want to be too ahead of the curve, and you don’t want to be too far behind.”

It may be an art to determine how sports and leagues are divided between the internet and television, but often the results are ugly.

Take the current Australian Open as an example, which has sparked social media shouts from tennis fans and players, for the way ESPN distributes matches between the linear ESPN2 and the streaming app. In the past, night matches in Australia ending at breakfast time on the East Coast remained on regular TV, and tennis spectators eagerly awaited the end of the matches. This year, ESPN’s coverage ends at 2 a.m. ET, with the rest pushed to ESPN+, until the final days of the tournament. Exciting matches were broadcast, from Andy Murray’s two-set comeback to a win over Australian Tanasi Kokkinakis to American Coco Gauff’s defeat of 2021 US Open champion Emma Radukano. Even, which broadcast the games available to cable subscribers, only had ESPN+ matches.

“It’s incredible how many social media users have expressed their frustration with this on Twitter and Reddit over the past eight days,” said Levi Young, 39, a tennis fan in Los Angeles. “With four Grand Slams a year, many tennis fans in this country will have to wait until July when Wimbledon will start watching a full tournament.” Wimbledon requires more line coverage in its ESPN deal.

Take note even of the tennis community. Last year’s Wimbledon and US Open quarter-finalist Agila Tomljanovic and former ATP Tour pro Jesse Levin were among those feeling let down during Murray’s return.

ESPN said it’s linearly broadcasting more hours of the tournament this year than last year, but there’s no getting around it: Fans of tennis and other sports should expect more content to move online as the cable package shrinks and streamers seek to finally make money.

“Monetizing streaming platforms is increasingly important as we run out of gas due to price increases on our pay TV package,” said Patrick Krakis, former Fox Sports executive and now media consultant. They need to “distribute across all platforms…they’re spinning the discs and looking for the right calibration, looking for the right frequency.”

A repeat of setting sports behind a streaming paywall is sure to pick up and capture more than just late-night tennis matches. Already in football there are major events like the UEFA Champions League (Paramount+) all pretty much streamed, not to mention the debut of Major League Soccer on Apple TV+. until the NFL Broadcast a game exclusively (other than in both teams’ home markets) on ESPN+ with Week 8’s BroncoJaguar game in London.

How do networks decide what to broadcast versus what to show on traditional TV?

“A lot of that was set in place many years ago,” Rick Cordella, head of programming for NBC Sports and Peacock Sports.

When a game is not contractually bound to a single platform, the network has to decide where to deliver it – broadcast, cable, or broadcast. And sometimes, all three at once.

The obvious big events will remain on the national linear broadcast network, Cordella said, but there is discussion of games and matches that are not top events.

At NBC, which has the US rights to the Premier LeagueProgrammers take into account factors such as how long it’s been since a team appeared on a particular platform, Cordella said. He added that now, Premier League matches are getting the same viewership on Peacock as they did on cable.

Timing is also an important factor – is there a broadcast window available? This limits linear television more than digital delivery, which can not only broadcast an event, but also provides perks such as full coverage of press conferences, highlights, stats and other elements that traditional broadcasting cannot.

Currently, streaming programming isn’t a terribly complicated process, Cordella said, and it’s loosened up as networks gain experience and the service grows with content and new media rights.

“Most of them come to us and they’re fairly straightforward,” he said of where to put the content. “It’s a slightly easier decision.”

NBC has it too Notre Dame Football, which has aired one game the past two seasons exclusively on Peacock, will have the Big Ten football games it will put behind a streaming paywall as part of its new media rights agreement with the conference. Decisions about which games to air will be made during the season, rather than as early as when the full schedule is released, to take advantage of changing stories as the NFL does with late-season games previewed in national broadcast windows.

There is also still a tension between putting important matches on linear TV versus putting them on broadcast to attract new subscribers and increase revenue. Rights bills still have to be paid, so it’s bad business to fill streaming services with low-interest content that doesn’t grow their subscriber base — even if it causes irritation among consumers who have to pay for another service on top of their cable bill.

“There will be big games on Peacock,” Cordella said. “The peacock is a big part of that (revenue) equation. We’re not shy about putting toys on the peacock. But it has to be the right mix. There’s some art and science to it.”

He added that NBC surveyed Peacock subscribers and the results showed that the most satisfied customers were fans of the Premier League and WWE.

“People are relatively happy with peacocks,” he said.

At CBS, the decision on what to air exclusively on Paramount+ versus linear TV broadcasts, or both, is generally made when negotiating media rights.

“Strategy is always very intentional in the beginning,” said Jeffrey Gertola, executive vice president of digital at CBS Sports, News and Stations.

The network is under the same pressure to find a balance between getting the largest audience for its expensive sports programming while increasing Paramount+ subscription revenue, but it’s trying to do so before the season even starts.

“We have a clear idea of ​​what business model will drive the rights fee-supporting business,” Gertola said.

“Our approach is unique. We have all the bigger stuff on Paramount+ and also on CBS,” Gertola said.

Unlike NBC’s Big Ten football deal, CBS doesn’t wait until the season begins to decide what to air vs. broadcast and cable — it’ll use all three modes of delivery.

“For us, we knew the deal was going to be a broadcast-focused deal,” said Dan Weinberg, executive vice president of programming for CBS Sports.

CBS can switch content to broadcast or broadcast if a rights partner wants to make a change later.

“We think flexibility is important,” Weinberg said. “We are always open to having these conversations.”

Disney-owned ESPN declined to comment generally on its strategy but vigorously defended its approach to the Australian Open.

While major tournaments like the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup, The Masters, etc. will still be on linear TV (during a simulated broadcast) for the foreseeable future, fans can expect to see the next level down from important programming like playoff games, go For live broadcast only. But when and who will take this bold and risky first step?

“As for the Finals, it’s going to be a long time coming,” Burke said, but he expects early playoff games to start moving to broadcast exclusives in the next three to five years.

The mass distribution model for entertainment (including sports) has evolved many times, starting with the transition from radio to television in the 1940s and 1950s, and then to cable in the 1980s and 1990s. Then, the advent of the Internet, smartphones, and social media added additional complex aspects to distribution.

Now millions of households rely on broadband internet to deliver sports and entertainment in place of coaxial cable.

“The inflection point was: When the cable TV audience got as big as the broadcast TV audience, you had to satisfy both,” Burke said. We’re starting to get there with broadband distribution. More and more exclusive or semi-exclusive content will be found on streaming because that is where your audience is. The content is where the audience is.”

The biggest leagues have made great strides into broadcasting. The NFL recently made a deal for the Sunday Ticket package to move from DirecTV’s satellite to Google’s YouTube TV, and Thursday Night Football migrated this season to Amazon Prime Video. Major League Baseball has put some Friday night games on Apple TV. and the NBAThe next batch of national media rights deals is expected to include a streaming component.

But for now, the audience is still primarily on cable, though in only about 65 million homes, down from 100 million a decade ago. Those who remain pay exorbitant amounts each month, so don’t be so kind as to pay extra for what they previously had with their cable package.

So, while it may seem easy to pay just $10 a month and get ESPN+ to watch all of the Australian Open, some fans of the event have complained on social media about paying really well with their cable bill for ESPN.

Unfortunately for @tennislurker and others in a similar position, they will find themselves in the media equivalent of no man’s land without access to much of what they want to watch.

(Photo by Andy Murray after defeating Thansi Kokkinakis at the Australian Open: Clive Brunskell/Getty Images)

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