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Do Superbowl Ratings Identify Flaws in Online TV Theory?

Posted by Doug Garnett February - 7 - 2011 - Monday

Overnight ratings for the Superbowl are in – and they’re outstanding. (Click Here.)

Of course, this suggests that when internet TV enthusiasts tell us about huge groups of people “cutting the cable” they’re really trying to cash in their venture investments. Because there are apparently enough cables still connected that the 2011 Superbowl had more viewers than any TV show in history (111 million of them) AND appears to have had a 71% share – watched by over 2/3rds of all televisions turned on at the time.

Let’s use this as a starting point to think a bit more about what Connected TV theorists are claiming right now – namely that we can throw out existing TV with its cable pipeline. (NOTE: A comment from Peter reminded me that this Superbowl was available without cable on Fox network affiliate broadcast feeds. Correction appreciated. And I don’t think this fundamentally changes much. Those feeds are a by product (today) of the strong cable distribution in the US. Change that cable distribution and the economic support for sports broadcasting changes.)

Mass Market or Fragmentation?

As I noted in a recent post, the internet is a tremendous tool to reach tiny shards of audiences. Because online, people scatter to the ends of the web.

But the Superbowl showcases TV’s ability to reach the masses quickly. In fact, TV drives mass communication – the web doesn’t. The web’s inherent strength is fragmented communication.

Note that for all the claims that Facebook and Twitter drove awareness of the recent Egyptian demonstrators, it took 24 hour coverage on the TV networks as well as newspaper front pages to generate broad awareness. (Note that TV coverage of Egyptian demonstrations has given CNN it’s highest ratings in years.)

If All TV Arrived Via Internet, Would There Be a Performance Issue?

These Superbowl numbers also make me wonder if scattering on the web isn’t critical to good web performance. We know the web breaks down under high use. For example, yesterday I attempted to look up some information from Fergie’s online bio’s during the halftime performance. What % of the TV audience was I competing with? .05%? But EVERY site had crawled to a stop.

Would there be a performance issue trying to broadcast the Superbowl ONLY over the web? I’m not a tech guru enough to know. But, here’s the problem: When 50 million US households want the same HDTV programming at the same time, the cable pipe seems to be a much more convenient distribution mechanism than the internet.

There are clever staging, cacheing, and other network load management things that can be done for a predictable event to attempt to maintain performance for something predictable like a Superbowl. Maybe they’re enough. But what about when an unexpected event like 9/11 happens (god forbid it happens again)? Would we be able to get good coverage? News sites already slow down when a gas main explodes in New York.

Sports Are Critical to Americans

Sports are a good place to consider this issue because technologies can be made to live by offering new sports options (DirecTV). Or they will die without it (we’ve forgotten the names of all those interactive TV efforts that were meaningless).

American’s won’t put up with a Superbowl where the action looks and feels like a satellite report from Afghanistan. Sure hope someone’s got this figured out before VC money pays to mount the effort to destroy cable TV.

Copyright 2011 – Doug Garnett


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Doug Garnett, DRTV and Technology Industry Expert

Doug Garnett is founder and CEO of DRTV agency Atomic Direct and a leading expert on innovative uses of DRTV, infomercials and other in-depth TV and non-TV messages to build brand and drive sales.

Doug has been working in and around the technology field for 27 years. After starting in aerospace, he spent 5 years selling and marketing supercomputers. Since shifting to advertising, his clients have included AT&T, IBM, Apple, Disney Mobile, Ugobe, Presto, and Netpliance.

Doug sits on the editorial board of Response Magazine, is an adjunct professor of general advertising at Portland State University, and is a member of the Jordan-Whitney Greensheet Panel.

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