Next weekend sees a big test in the ongoing debate over whether people will pay for premium content on the internet, when the World Cup qualifier between Ukraine and England in Dnipropetrovsk next Saturday. The match is due to be shown in the UK live over the internet only following the collapse of Setanta during the summer. The late television channel had been due to show the match live, but after the company collapsed during the summer they sold the rights to a rights company called Kentaro who, having attempted to sell the rights on to other British broadcasters, have entered into a partnership with a company called Perform with a view to screening the match live on the internet.
The full details are due to be announced at a press conference tomorrow, but it seems likely that a number of websites (including at least some from the national newspapers) will be showing the match on a pay per view basis for a charge of £4.99. The match, of course, is not as critical as it might of been since England beat Croatia at Wembley last month to secure their place in the finals of next year’s World Cup. However, there is a certain proportion of the population who would watch to see if England can win all ten of their qualifying matches and there are others who will just watch every England match, no matter what the situation. Ultimately, though, there is no question that this is the most significant match at least in the history of English football to be broadcast in this way.
What is doubly significant about this is that, at present, there will not be any highlights shown on the television either. At present, the only way that anyone will be able to watch this match will be on a computer – there’s nothing in the schedules for a highlights package on the television either at the time of writing either. Predictably, Kentaro aren’t mentioning their overwhelming urge to earn a shilling or two out of it all. Philipp Grothe, CEO of the Kentaro Group said, “We have spoken to every traditional UK broadcaster and currently have no offer on the table. We therefore feel the internet delivers the most viable option to deliver an important England game directly to the fans”. Is this really the “most viable option to deliver an important England game directly to the fans”?
The answer to this, at present, is obviously no. Sixty-three per cent of UK households currently have broadband access, and it is debatable whether all of these would be able to deliver the speed required for streaming video. Some might argue that this brings the match into more homes than showing the match on a pay per view television, but it cuts out what is for many a standard way of watching football on the television – watching it in the pub. Unless, that is, pubs are going to start hooking up to illegal satellite feeds or plugging their laptops into television sets. Removing the communal aspect from watching the match may well decimate the audience. Many will feel that if they have to watch it at home, squinting at a box on their web browser, it might not be worth the effort of watching it at all, although there may be some with the technical wherewithal (and, at a practical level, the leads) to be able to hook their computers up to the television, but how many will go to that trouble remains open to question.
Also, as many of you will be doubtless aware, those illegal feeds of matches over the internet still exist. The other key question that Kentaro have to answer is the small issue of what their service will offer that the free and illegal streams of the match can’t, other than the possibility of going offline because of smart work by teams of lawyers. They certainly can’t afford any technical glitches – problems with the feed dropping would seem to be the most likely cause for issues – but will they be able to guarantee the quality of the feed and that, should there be any problems with it, how quickly will they be able to set those issues straight?
The problem with this plan seems to be that there will be nothing in place to provide a back-up on the television, although Kentaro might yet come up with an agreement with someone to show highlights of the match on the television later on in the evening. If this match had been an important one for England, it remains likely that the match would have been picked up by one of the major television broadcasters, but in the current atmosphere of austerity within the broadcasting industry it is hardly surprising that Kentaro have not been able to find a company that will pay a premium rate for a match that doesn’t ultimately matter that much to England. There is certainly a place for more matches to be streamed over the internet, but whether this is the right way to do it remains open to question.