Sports Ratings Records and what it tells us about the internet

have you seen sports ratings lately ? Just this week:

The NBA on TNT had its highest ratings in TWENTY SIX YEARS .  Versus had its highest rated regular season NHL game EVER.  The first game of the World Series was the highest rated in 5 years.  The NFL was setting records on cable and achieving viewing levels not seen in TWENTY YEARS !. College Football ratings are killing it as well.

But wait there is more.  TV viewing is up considerably in each of the last several years. We can even look at the box office for movies and the fact that the industry is seeing a theatrical revival.

The question is simple. Whats going on ?

The answer is simple as well.

The internet has trained us.

It has trained us to assign two distinct values to content that is available to us, regardless of media.    The 1st variable is participation value. The 2nd variable is shelf life.  The two variables go hand in hand.

Every type of content has some quotient of participation value. At the bottom of the spectrum are games/shows/movies/events that you watch or attend by yourself, and you have no interest in telling anyone about.  Those shows have zero participation value.  They could be Perry Mason reruns (happened to catch one while I was working out on the road) or shows you watch when you have nothing better to do.

At the top of the scale are games/shows/movies/events that potential viewers have predicted to have high participation value.  These are events that we look forward to not only watching or attending, but that we plan in advance how we are going to extend our participation.  We may plan on tweeting about it or posting a facebook update because we know our friends are there and we are bragging to each other, while at the same time showing off to friends who cant be there. Think going to the opening of Cowboys stadium, or going to a concert or opening night of a movie, or watching the big game.

Or we may plan on going online and participating in discussion forums or chats. Or we may be planning on posting comments on our favorite websites where others have shared interests.  For others it may be some version of gaming, ala fantasy sports.

Sports of course have high affinity engagement, and because of the internet, they have increasing participation opportunities.  You may watch a Magic game just to be able to tweet to Dwight Howard what you saw while watching the game.  You may watch the Giants Eagles game because your fantasy teams are stacked with players from those teams and your league allows first come changes. Or you may just want to see how your guys did so you can text your friends in the league and give them a hard time, or take a hard time. Its very, very common for fans of MMA (mixed martial arts) to stay up to the wee hours to watch our Dream Fights from Japan on HDNet , all the while online discussing the fight and then arguing over the outcome with others doing the exact same thing.

The higher the participation value, the shorter the shelf life.  The role of the internet for high participation games/shows/events is not to show them, its to enable the participation. The explosion of Social Networking and social networking enabled games and applications has strengthened this as the internet’s role. Its improving TV ratings of shows with high participation value.

While some may think that combining the presentation of events/shows/etc and the participation into a single webpage makes sense. It doesn’t.  The internet has also trained us that if it can be shown on the internet, its probably not going to have a high participation value. Why ? Because the expectation is that if its on the internet, you can get to it any time you want it.  Its out there waiting for you to stream or download at your pleasure. There is a long perceived shelf life.  So there is no rush.

The latest U2 concert on Youtube is a perfect example.  I thought that when I went to Akamai’s status page the number of concurrent users would be in the millions. As you can see from this link, it was about 1.15mm. Nothing to sneeze at, but that is for ALL of the streaming Akamai was doing at the time and its not dramatically more than a normal night for Akamai (as I write this, the total on the akamai visualization page is 1.3mm, more than during the concert) .  I shouldn’t have been surprised.  There was no reason to rush to watch it. Its available now and probably forever more on the net.

Compare this to live, competitive reality tv.  THe opportunity to watch a train wreck or to catch a spectacular performance, live , can easily trigger a high participation event.  Think watching me on Dancing with the Stars hoping or expecting me to wipe out.  You go in knowing and hoping and ready to let all your friends who werent watching know about it, and to talk about it with all your friends who are watching.  So while the ratings may have fallen off some for these shows, one episode comparable to Marie Osmond fainting, which led to a huge surge in viewing on my DWTS season, or a Brett Favre last second touchdown or interception return, or even a movie that is a hugely positive surprise like Paranormal Activity, all have short shelf lives while creating the expectation among viewers that they are or could be high participation events.

Which brings us to our conclusion. THe longer the shelf life, the more likely that there is a lower perceived participation value. Sure you may want to talk about your favorite TV show with others, but there is no rush.  You can get to it when you get to it. More importantly, networks and production companies should work a lot harder at creating realtime  participation around their content. If you can increase the value of participation, you increase the value of the show and the desire to watch the show at the same time as others.  Which is exactly what is happening with sports in record numbers.

You cant stop people from recording shows on their DVRs, and you shouldnt try. But you should try to give them as many reasons as possible to take advantage of the increased entertainment value of participating  with others. High participation  equals high viewership. That is exactly what record ratings for sports are telling us.


38 thoughts on “Sports Ratings Records and what it tells us about the internet

  1. Mark,

    Who do you use to create all of your companies sign work? (Banners, Channel Letters, Wraps, etc..)

    You nailed the article!!! So very true on so many levels…

    Do you think that MLB is losing younger fans b/c the games are played so late at night?

    I think MLB lost out by not allowing you to buy the CUBS. You have a proven track record for improving a professional team. That alone should have been enough with your giant stack of cold hard cash.

    Thanks…love the blog!!!

    Comment by ballparkmark -

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  3. Great post. You have probably shared a great insight into how/why sports still has not been able to crack the digital puzzle. Great correlation between participation & shelf life aspect.

    Comment by samratkakkar -

  4. Mark,

    Saw this tweet from @theofficenbc today about an iPhone app that drives home the point your are making here. See

    Comment by ecrosstexas -

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  7. Completely agree Mark, I linked to this post in my article on the usage of Twitter lists to allow a online space for fans to congregate and generate buzz. As our TV becomes less like TV and more like a tech mashup live sports will continue to be the big winner for the TV networks.

    Comment by seancallanan -

  8. Of course the Internet has, and continues to change, businesses, media and even the way we think. But I attribute the phenomenon you’re talking about here mostly to a behavioral mod that happens every time things get bumpy. When the going get’s tough, the tough curl up on the couch. Historically you can see that every time we had a deep recession or even depression or during times of war, people ran to the movies or later flocked around the tv set, because it feels safe there and the world outside can’t get to you.

    Comment by vulfin -

  9. I completely agree with your blog post, Mark. The internet has changed many businesses such as mine in real estate. At first, the Realtors who have adapted have become very successful, those that haven’t have left the business. I see this happening to TV also.

    Comment by dowelltaggart -

  10. I just want a-la-cart programming beyond the basic tier. We pay a lot for crap to get the content we want. I’m afraid it will never happen.

    Comment by edifyresearcher -

  11. I’ve been stewing on this idea for a while. I think the key to the old media’s future success is to make it interactive. People can get the content any time they want, it’s the experience, the singular event, that the companies can sell. For another example (Mark’s is brilliant), I’d point to the success of the concert industry versus the music sales industry. People can download a song illegally. They can’t really do that (or at least it tends to be hard) with a concert. The experience is the key.

    Comment by katetheprofessional -

  12. This is exactly why its crazy that some stadiums block mobile internet so that people can’t tweet about games they’re at or upload content. They’re basically blocking free advertising which is insane.

    Comment by speakyourpeace -

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  14. Mark,

    I recently wrote a blog post that relates to this somewhat. The gist of it is wondering why CBS and FOX only fill 3, sometimes just 2, slots during the noon (central time) and 3:00 PM NFL games when the other 3 or 6 hours are filled with paid programming? My guess is that it has to do with local viewing and NFL licensing but I have never heard exactly why and it seems like money is being lost. I figured you might have an explanation.

    As a young ad guy I love this post and couldn’t agree more with your take on shelf life and DVRs.



    Comment by emac2233 -

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  16. A buddy of mine told me that an old saying goes like this, “When the economy is down, people go to the movies.” Do you think the high ratings and revenue can somewhat be attributed to the bad economy?

    Comment by windham349 -

  17. You’re right. The value in TV can not be matched on the internet unless the internet can provide Live exclusive viewing of a mass scale. All in all I am glad the ‘Internet hasn’t killed the video/tv star” because it would change entertainment socially as we know it. Both definitely have their place and while some try to come up with new delivery methods I hope that they retain what you pointed out with the ratings.

    Comment by andrei2k -

  18. There’s no doubt that the more singular an event is perceived to be, the greater the value of the live and virtual audience. Don’t discount the fact that until the past four years, Nielsen, the currency of media ratings, could not even measure time-shifted audiences. This is why the major networks, who by the way are in denial about audience fragmentation, went to great lengths including trying to startup a competing ratings service to replace Nielsen. The barrier to entry is too great (in the billions). DVR’s have allowed DirecTV to develop their own ratings service, although limited. There’s no doubt that the closer to the event, the greater the value. So it can probably be stated that from the advent of DVR’s and time-shifting, until the past few years, the entire audience for events was not captured, and out-of-home and new media measurement remains an issue. This is what those who would seek to measure the “whole audience” are now grapeling over, with the likes of Arbitron developing a portable people meter measurement device. This does not even touch mobile media. We’ll see what’s next, but it’s ironic to think that audiences are growing out of these events, when it’s probably a combination of that, the internet, and a counting problem. This is why print is for leisure reading, and electronic media is now the only current currency.

    Comment by edifyresearcher -

  19. Pingback: Clasificación de contenidos de web Tv: el valor de participación y su ciclo de vida « web television

  20. I like this post Mark. I think you may have overlooked the ‘fear of participation’ factor as well though. Example: my friends and I are die football/basketball fans. We text during games. Some of my friends prefer dvr to live. Sometimes these friends are “accidentally” included in a group text which spoils their dvr experience. Those guys have participation fear/dvr spoiler fear.

    Comment by bjgomer13 -

  21. Great points Mark. I see the same thing with Hulu and iTunes. Since I can buy TV episodes on iTunes or watch them for free on Hulu, there is no need to have to catch it when it’s on.

    I like that better anyway since I’m not one to make sure I’m around to watch a TV show. I’d rather catch it when I have down time.

    Marshall Wayne

    Comment by marshallwayne -

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  24. Love the article. It makes total sense. Live is so important. I actually think sports is on the tip of the iceberg. There is still a lot they can do to interact with the fans more. We see some places featuring tweets or encouraging tweet questions. When is some going to create a directv app that allows you to turn on live tweets during a game or when is the nba going to have its first broadcast when tweets might be shown in the bottom right. There is endless opportunity.

    Networks need to figure out a way to have more prediction games structured around their shows. That will make people want to watch them live. They also need to encourage as much cooler talk as possible as this will make people worried about hearing a spoiler or reading one online.

    Comment by sportstechnow -

  25. Mark,

    Right on the nose. I’m not going to say anyone has it figured out but what is pretty apparent is old media companies are having a hard time treating the internet like a new medium and a harder time exploiting the new medium to drive value.
    Remember when TV first came out? What did they do? Put radio shows on television and we all know how that worked out…
    Took some creative minds to come up with content types to fit the medium (and the viewers) and when that happened TV took off.

    I got a question for you Mark… with TV regardless of the content type (soap, reality tv, live sports) I can use a product (tv set) to utilize the medium. Same with radio. The internet on the other hand seems skewed… we see content types pinned to brands (youtube=clips, justintv=lifecasting, ustream=interactive live, hulu=tv vod) all of these sites have various attributes of the medium yet I can’t be at one place and fully utilize the medium with all its various attributes. Do you think there will be a site or product that fits this medium eventually? A tv set for the television medium maybe a site or device for the intervision medium? Thx!


    Comment by aaroncray -

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  27. I agree with most of this assessment with the exception perhaps of this assertion:

    “The internet has also trained us that if it can be shown on the internet, its probably not going to have a high participation value. Why ? Because the expectation is that if its on the internet, you can get to it any time you want it.”

    While generally true, I believe one of if not the most popular online events is March Madness which has been incredibly successful (no doubt to the detriment of worker productivity) and has one of the absolute highest participation values. So these things are not mutually exclusive. The fact is that live sports online would be massively popular as well (and continue to have massive participation value) if the leagues were willing to make this content widely available. There are obvious reasons why most do not, but clearly March Madness demonstrates your above statement to not be a universal truth.

    Comment by toddpringle -

  28. I would love to see this increase in sports watching on TV charted against the current in-person attendance records. My gut tells me that while Mark’s theories for participation television has merits, the increase in sports television ratings would match up with a decline in live attendance.

    With the proliferation of HDTV & the increased price of attending these events live (tickets, concessions etc.) I would bet that reason TV ratings as so high is because people are staying at home and watching them on TV instead of going to the arena/stadium/ballpark.

    Comment by adamrz -

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  32. Eranbair – You mean to tell me that Sports is that unpredictable? I mean, one team always wins and one loses…unless there is a dreaded tie. I don’t even think it’s that. It’s, as Mark mentioned, the availability of regular programming instantly available in other formats. I can go back and watch the last month of The Office and get completely caught up. It’s sort of pointless to go back and watch the last four football games by my alma mater unless I’m a hardcore fan and have not heard how they performed.

    Comment by BM -

  33. haleyef… I agree

    I think it may also point to the fact that regular TV might not be sparking interest like it used to. It may be too predictable where sports can be unpredictable.

    Comment by eranbair -

  34. To be completely honest, the only reason that I feel the need to pay the outrageous price of cable is for “timely events”, meaning pretty much exclusively Sports or perhaps news (although I rarely watch the latter).

    It’s true for a number of reasons. There’s no reason for me to rush home to watch my favorite show. Either I have it on Tivo, can watch it tomorrow on Hulu, or can download a torrent. In some cases, you can download a show via torrent on the West Coast and watch it before it’s being broadcast three hours after the East Coast airing.

    Some shows aren’t available via torrent, such as the History Channel and the like. But a heavy amount of shows are. Most of the other crap I tune to sometimes (think House Hunters) is watched because it’s there…but there’s not much loss to my entertainment or knowledge if it was gone.

    So that’s what traditional media has come down to. Live Sports. Nightly News. For most primetime entertainment the model is outdated, as it’s much easier and more convenient to watch at your leisure.

    There should really be a Hulu-type product, which allows you to stream HD Live sports broadcasts to your big screen, over the Internet. If I could rent a box and a subscription…totaling like $10-15 dollars a month, that’d be much nicer than dealing with the constant price sneaking that Comcast does to me. Joint venture between ESPN/ABC, CBS Sports, NBC, Fox, TNT…create a revenue stream. Bonus…targeted advertisements based on location and demographics allow the company to charge higher ad rates than what is done on ‘broadcast’.

    If you like what I have to say, please check out my new blog http://www.DailyThoughts.Me It’s brand new so there’s not much content, but this is similar to the type of stuff I’d like to be writing about. Thanks.

    Comment by BM -

  35. It tells me in a much more simple way that many people can’t afford to go out and television is now their main or only form of entertainment.

    Comment by haleyef -

  36. It’ll be interesting to see if tv networks recognize your point and try to move new programming in this direction. Will they be able to find a way to do that with scripted programs?

    Comment by nathanlustig -

  37. Completely agree with you Mark. “Old” media has a lot to learn about driving participation and first-showing viewing of programming other than sports and reality competitions.

    If it were me, I’d be evaluating new programming options based on their potential in this regard, and I’d be approaching advertisers with ideas on how to get involved.

    It’s easier said than done, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the right choices could lead to higher first-showing audiences, greater engagement, more effective advertisements, and higher rates.

    Comment by deverwarner -

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