Live sports have always helped drive record-shattering TV viewing, and this year's Super Bowl was no different in that respect. Not only was it the most-viewed live TV broadcast in history, but it was streamed live by Fox without TV Everywhere authentication, resulting in the most popular live streaming sports event in history. An average of 528,000 viewers watched the Seattle Seahawks win their first-ever NFL championship.
...(at) the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi Russia, with NBC offering wall-to-wall coverage of live events online and free 30-minute passes to watch the live streams without authentication. Two networks, two huge events, and two interesting experiments in how to make the authentication pay wall play nice.
So what gives? Two observations.
1. The lesson from Fox's Super Bowl coverage: Authentication is not absolute.
To date, Fox has been the strictest of the major broadcast networks with respect to authentication, requiring a pay-TV login to view first-run content within eight days of viewing. For these shows, Fox has concluded that the live viewing audience on legacy broadcast and pay-TV platforms is better served by putting catch-up viewing behind the pay wall. That is, Fox would prefer the casual viewer to watch (or record) the live broadcast, as opposed to substituting an online viewing session a day or two later.
The jury is still out on whether this is the right strategy, as illustrated by the mixed approaches of the other networks. CBS and NBC currently do not require authentication for online viewing, while ABC has gone back and forth. For the Super Bowl, however, Fox obviously concluded that authentication of the live stream would serve little purpose. Most pay-TV subscribers interested in the Super Bowl are already going to watch it on the largest screen they (or their friends) have available. In this case, the online stream serves mainly to supplement the live broadcast, making the big game available to more than a half a million people who for whatever reasons were not in front of a TV set during the game.
Who were these people? Most likely an interesting mix of travelers, college students, people who work weekends, and those who simply choose not to own a TV. By making the Super Bowl available to these folks for free (with a full ad load, of course), Fox demonstrated that authentication does not have to be absolute. TV Everywhere can work, but not at all times and not in all situations.
2. The lesson from NBC's Olympic coverage: Pay walls need windows. Pay walls used to be enforced by hardware and were not particularly flexible. HBO and its MVPD partners have offered free promotional weekends for decades in order to let people sample HBO content for free, but these were (and are) a crude and limited exception to the pay wall rule. Today's web, by contrast, makes it a whole lot easier for TV providers to experiment. NBC, for example, maintained a fairly absolute pay wall around its Olympic coverage of the 2012 Summer Games in London, while receiving lots of criticism for its heavily edited and tape-delayed broadcast coverage. This time around, however, NBC cleverly spotted an opportunity to do things differently.
The author is Joel Espelien, senior analyst, The Diffusion Group. Re-printed with permission.