17 August 2016

The 2016 Rio Olympics reminds us we should live in the media moment


My name is Charlotte Henry, and I’m addicted to the Olympics.

Night after night I’ve sat on my sofa at home gripped by the action from Rio. This addiction reached its peak in the last few days, when I insisted on getting back from a dinner with my family in time to watch 4 minutes of track cycling. Last night I could barely sleep, so gripped was by the exploits of Trott, Kenny and co. in the Olympic velodrome.

I’ve had to stay up and watch it live because sport, unlike so much media nowadays, has to be consumed there and then, in the moment. Yes, you can catch-up with the result or watch the highlights back later, but nothing will ever replicate watching sporting incidents unfold live in front of you.

It would be impossible to fully capture the drama of Jason Kenny having to restart his race twice last night before winning unless you watch it live. Laura Trott’s moment of jubilation at becoming Britain’s most successful female Olympian just would not be the same. This is a facet unique to sport, and at odds with current technological and media developments.

A year ago I wrote for CapX about how brilliant competition between the new media companies is. And it is. High quality drama series, box sets, and music have all become cheaper and more accessible thanks to innovative new companies fighting to win our eyeballs and monthly direct debits.

Media technology means that these companies can provide us with the ability to watch whatever we want, wherever we want, and whenever we want. Programming has rightly changed to respond to that. This ranges from expensive to produce original content being made for Netflix and Amazon Prime, to series clearly designed to be bought as a box set and binged on instead of watched in the traditional format of an episode a week.

Sky’s recent purchase of the rights to James Corden’s hugely successful Late Late Show underlines this shift as well as anything. The broadcasting giant did not buy the rights so the programme could be shown on Sky One or Sky Atlantic in UK prime time, but so they could put it on their On Demand service to be downloaded by viewers hours after it is broadcast in the US, and watched at their convenience.

Forget soap storylines peaking on Christmas Day, Sunday night drama series, or even big set-piece celebrity interviews, the idea of families gathering around to watch programmes as they go out on air has long faded. It is sport that remains the last bastion of event television.

Ultimately, it is the numbers that do the talking. 8m people tuned in to watch Tom Daley and Dan Goodfellow dive for a bronze medal last week. Goodness knows how many watched Trott last night. Those are the kind of numbers most producers would kill for.

By contrast, American viewers are furious that major broadcaster NBC has shown key Olympic events on a tape delay. Blasted in 2012 for doing the same thing, the result this time around is that viewership has slumped to a 20 year low of around 30 million viewers.

Sports broadcasters are getting more innovative in how they show some events, for example with the Champions League final being streamed live on YouTube. The government in the UK could also do with relaxing regulations around broadcasting rights. The point remains though that it is all based around watching things live, because if you don’t get up at 2.25am to see Usain Bolt run the 100m the moment has passed. Everyone remembers where they were during Super Saturday at London 2012, or where they watched the events of this Sunday in Rio unfold.

Ironically, the modern technology that has so disrupted broadcasting has made watching sporting events live even more critical, as avoiding the results is now practically impossible. The immediacy of social media means nothing can be hidden for very long.

Turn on Twitter during any night of the Olympics and you know instantly how athletes are doing, various Facebook pages update with results within minutes of an event ending, while phones beep incessantly every weekend with goal alerts in the football. No more recording matches on a battered VCR and avoiding the newspaper stand on your way home -resistance is futile, and the only thing you can do is watch live.

It is great that we can watch Orange is the New Black or the West Wing wherever and whenever we want. However, in an age of On Demand culture, where we expect to get any piece of media to order, the Olympics reminds us that sometimes living in the moment is essential.

Charlotte Henry is a journalist and broadcaster covering technology, media, and politics.