Only Messi Can Save Us Now

What’s wrong with this picture? It’s 2012, cheap broadband is ubiquitous in the developed world, and TV still isn’t dead. In fact it’s thriving. Sure, for the first time ever, Nielsen says more people watch videos on the Internet than on a TV–albeit barely–but if you look at how much time is spent on the two, there’s no comparison: TV utterly dominates. Which explains why, again according to Nielsen, more money is spent on TV advertising than all other ad platforms combined.

A few doomsayers say the TV industry “may be starting to collapse” and that excessive production costs are its weak spot. Yeah, if only. Television as constituted today makes no sense at all; it’s a kludged-up legacy system that’s enormously painful and expensive to maintain. But TV’s entrenched economic interests and cultural inertia are so pathological that even HBO GO wouldn’t make sense as a standalone app–as HBO confirms–and the rumors of a brand-new Apple TV ecosystem were, alas, dead wrong. Sure, YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu are mighty powers in their own right, but if even nigh-omnipotent Apple has given up, what hope do they have?

Funny you should ask. I just happen to have an answer.

For starters, they could ask Rupert Murdoch, who singlehandedly disrupted the TV industry in the 1990s, when it was even more powerful. He’s a man not without his flaws–when Dennis Potter, the great British TV writer, was diagnosed with cancer, he named it “Rupert”–but in the mid-1990s he defeated the invincible Goliaths of television in both the USA and the UK with a mighty sling named sports.

Many, many techies are virulently anti-sports. Maybe that’s why so many of us don’t realize their importance. But where sports fans lead, the viewing public will follow. That’s what Murdoch proved with Fox in the USA and Sky in the UK. I’m (mostly) a huge sports fan, and take it from me, live Internet sports video coverage is terrible–most of the time. But two years ago I caught a glimpse of how great it could be: when I was living in Canada, the CBC streamed every single game of the World Cup live, free-to-air, in high quality. It was terrific. But until that kind of sports programming is regularly available on the Internet, cutting the cord will simply not be an option for hundreds of millions of people.

Netflix and YouTube are pouring money into original programming, but instead they should have gone hunting for the biggest elephants of all: the NFL (in America) and European Champions League (elsewhere). Alas, in December the NFL re-upped its TV deals until 2022. The deals “will ensure the NFL will stay on free television for another 11 years”–meaning the NFL will stay on television for another 11 years, and we’ll be stuck with these antediluvian legacy “networks” and “channels” for at least that long. O disintermediation, where is thy sting?

But America is not the world. Elsewhere, it’s soccer that matters, and the Champions League rights are only being sold for three years at a time. Some TV entity or another will win them this time around, but maybe, come 2015, YouTube will splash out and buy those rights, and knock the TV industry right on its ear. One can hope. I look forward to one day watching Lionel Messi‘s magic as shown by a 21st Century industry rather than a 20th Century dinosaur.

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