That younger audiences are more likely to watch highlights on Snapchat than they are full match on Sky Sports is a moot point for the broadcaster, one it believes is less of a factor in its much-publicised drop in viewers.
Rather the headline stat - a 19% drop in viewers last year - doesn’t tell the full story. Yes, younger audiences are less likely to engage and consequently view fewer full matches but they have never been the broadcaster’s predominant subscribers. So, while millennials may be a factor in a dip that has caused some observers to decry the value of the pay-TV model, they can’t be the only one.
From the Olympic games to the number of televised matches of teams with smaller fanbases like Leicester City, the alarming stats cloud a complicated picture, one that reveals seasonal one offs and a 2015/16 season devoid of the tentpole clashes that have made it appointment to view TV in bygone years. Look no further than the BBC as proof that televised sport continues to hold its own amidst a splintering media landscape; the success of the broadcaster’s FA Cup matches attracting similar audiences to international games.
It’s a view that goes some way to explaining Sky Sports unwavering faith that live sport will “always” remain premium. Faith that naysayers argue is misplaced given the average viewing figures for the Premier League (as of last November) was 1.03 million in comparison to the one million who currently watch Snapchat Discover channels daily in the UK.
And there’s the rub for Sky Sports; sport is all about telling stories and while the live contest is a story in its own right, much of the story telling can take place before and particularly after a game. It’s why digital director Dave Gibbs stresses the need to understand how the likes of Snapchat can drive live viewing on its own channels: “We use the super premium content for what our subscribers pay us money for then we use the premium content to drive value around our subscriptions and then it’s about how do we use the other content to allow us to talk to different audiences.”
Since Rupert Murdoch bet big on the Premier League in 1991 to rescue its faltering satellite business, the past 26 years have seen it push the primacy of its live crown jewels. Now it can no longer ignore social media, Sky Sports’ objective is more about positive brand association. For the big broadcasters it’s not just about having the content to sell to subscribers, it’s also about making sure they are the brand associated with the best sport. Just look at the amount of marketing it ploughs into its content - that’s not just to promote programming, it’s to say ‘we are big powerful presenters of sport’.
Gibbs expands on the point: “I think in a world where some publishers are less reliant on their own platforms one of the big pushes for us is how we drive insights in our users. And if we do that then it allows us to offer a far more personalised service…the more insight and the more data that we can build up about a user then the better the experience we can provide them and the more value they get from their subscription.”
How social fits into this is still a work in progress, though what’s already clear is an attempt to show a lightness of touch. Highlights aside, more entertainment-led content litters its feeds now, ranging from the Carling ‘In off the bar’ challenge on YouTube and Facebook to a snap of pundit Paul Merson humorously failing to pronounce the names of certain players. But “we don’t rely on them [social networks] for traffic,” assured Gibbs, who points to its own platforms – the site and the app – that are “growing year-on-year” and consequently is why he isn’t worried about whether those same businesses become rights owners.
“We’ve always had competition,” he added. “They [social networks] can comment on whatever their own aspirations are in this space but competition makes us stronger and more innovative.”
The key question is how media rights holders like Sky Sports co-exist with the likes of Snapchat and Facebook, and how they benefit from these digital channels while retaining the value of long-form content via paid-for models and advertising. Whereas rights were previously packaged to ensure maximum protection to the live content and the main licensee, now those same rights holders have come round to allowing some of their content on social media where the audiences are now.
Having gained digital rights to the Premier League at the start of the season, Sky has spent the past six months packaging the same content in different ways on Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. While there’s still much to learn about all five, there’s a sense that Snapchat is the one to intrigue its producers the most to date.
A closer look at its Discover channel explains why: Posting between nine and 12 times per edition has seen the edition double its viewers over the last six months, with seven in ten of those aged between 13 to 25-years-old. Most of these posts are highlights, pulled from the longer widescreen video highlights of matches, which earlier this month would have included goals from Sunday’s Manchester United versus Liverpool match repurposed for the vertical video format with added graphics. For matches like this, the clips won’t be made until after midnight.
“We’ve learned a lot more in the last six months on the platform, probably because more data is being made available to us about what the audience wants,” said Robert Hodges, head of audience development at Sky Sports. “It means we’re no longer constantly evolving what we’re posting on Snapchat on a week-by-week basis like it was in the first year when it was more test and learn.”
Not bad for a Snapchat team of four, each member publishing each daily edition at 5pm. Deadline aside they are not averse to publishing content as things happen as well as hitting the post-school rush given its younger audience. These viewers aren’t necessarily “great readers”, admitted Mark Alford, head of digital publishing at the sports broadcaster.
“They’re vociferous watchers so it’s video, its active and its entertaining but not particularly long – a goals package is about as long as they’ll stomach but we’re fortunate with our rights that we’re able to show a lot of different sports. It tends to be the action as well the funny posts that work for us.”
Instead of giving people information and facts in a traditional third-person way (as if they were watching TV), Sky tries to pull people into a news event first-person. Inevitably, the Snapchat team’s experimentation with this tact hasn’t always paid off like when it tried to tell the Champions League story without any media rights in a Bleecher Report-style video interspersed with stills only to realise it shouldn’t be looking to mimic those rights given its impressive cache.
Discover is just one half of the Snapchat puzzle, the remainder of which it hopes to tackle in Stories, a collection of Snaps (photos and videos) that a brand and its followers would publish over the course of a 24-hour period. “That’s one of the things we want to crack in 2017,” said Alford.
“The thing with Stories is you need to have a consistent tone and output because what we want to do with it is take people behind-the-scenes here at Sky Sports as well as covering the live sport event. Having consistency with your output is difficult because you have to put it in the hands of lots of different people to make it work.”
Whether its highlights on Snapchat or a chatbot version of its presenter Jeff Stelling on Facebook Messenger, Sky knows it must adapt to a more pervasive way of watching sport. And while it might not be ready to hit the panic button just yet, the already multi-million pound stakes have been raised by a decline that is yet to reveal itself as either blip or trend.
However, there are some media observers who have already decided that Sky’s slip in viewers last year further proves that TV subscriptions could soon be a thing of the past.
“Even something like the English Premier League football, which seemed like the most reliable stream of revenue for broadcasters, is no longer immune from this shift in consumption,” said co-founder and chief executive of Wochit Dror Ginzberg.
While BT and Sky Sports have spent billions of pounds to secure exclusive rights for this live content, ratings have been declining, with early ratings this season down by a fifth. Meanwhile, BT, who trumped Sky Sports to both Champions League and Europa League rights, showed the finals of both competitions on YouTube in order to boost surprisingly low audiences.
“Bottom line? We’re going to see audiences fragment even further and traditional broadcasters will likely bear the brunt of this trend. Increased collaboration and partnerships are potential avenues with these new rivals for broadcasters may help to stem the tide,” said Ginzberg. “However, given how on demand services have taken off so spectacularly, there might not be much incentive for them to give a helping hand to ailing broadcasters.”
When asked about the prospect of launching a new kind of subscription model in response to the shift, Sky’s Gibbs said he “did not know” before citing the Now TV service, which launched four years ago and allows people to watch sport on a daily, weekly and monthly basis for a fee, as an example of how it’s trying to “talk to new audiences”.
“Maybe pay subscriptions are beginning to look a little ‘analogue’ in the social media age,” said Kelly Williams, managing director of Sports Revolution.
“The Snapchat generation wants bite-size, shareable content. It’s striking how many millennials don’t even have TVs, let alone expensive subscription packages. They are consuming content on tablets, phones and are on the move. Live football is still hugely important to them, but broadcasters can’t assume they will be captive and static for 90 minutes. They need to catch them when they can.”