It was quite a weekend to be a Watford fan. I get to say that roughly every seven years.
Yesterday, after 180 minutes of hard-fought football, a startling 20 seconds at the end of the Watford-Leicester match at Vicarage Road resulted in the Hornets getting through to their third ever Championship play-off final. On Bank Holiday Monday we’ll be playing either Crystal Palace or Brighton for the right to become a member of the English Premier League.
The play-off final seems to have become the most valuable single game of football in the world. For the winners, I’ve seen estimates that the prize will this year will amount to some £120m of TV rights (and subsequent “parachute payments” if they then fall back a league at the end of the first in the top flight). When Watford last got promotion in 2006, the value of their year in the sun was expected to be in the order of £40m. The first time we went into the Premier league, in 1999, a mere £10m.
These numbers, showing an incredible rate of inflation in comparison to the general economy, really demonstrate how media owners are willing to pay vast amounts for compelling “TV moments” (or, it has to be said if we get promotion, possibly some fairly dull TV moments too). This, along with the expansion of “event format” TV programmes (X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and similar reality/talent shows) shows how reliant broadcasters have become on content that is time-critical to draw in audiences for advertisers. Time shifting, video on demand and similar mean that traditional linear TV programming just can’t attract the audiences unless there is a compelling event to tie people into a specific time of viewing.
This isn’t anything new – the Superbowl in the US for many years has been seen as the benchmark for high-priced TV advertising slots. It’s just that there are now so many alternatives for viewers’ eyeballs to the traditional TV channel.
As new media emerge, old media reshape themselves to become more relevant (or die out entirely). When the TV emerged in the 1950s as a mass medium, cinema went through a period of readjustment when it lost B-movies and newsreels. The future of live broadcast TV probably does lie in events – either manufactured just for TV or with external significance (where sport holds its power). Quite what this means for other forms of programming seems to be somewhat up in the air.