Do Superbowl Ratings Identify Flaws in Online TV Theory?

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

About Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett is an expert introducing innovative consumer products and services to market while driving higher return on innovation investment. His career has been spent in innovation and he is the president of Protonik, LLC - an innovation consultancy focused on marketing and innovation. Prior to founding Protonik, he was founder and CEO of ad agency Atomic Direct.

8 Responses to Do Superbowl Ratings Identify Flaws in Online TV Theory?

  1. Peter says:

    You miss an important point here. The Superbowl is Broadcast. No one needed a cable subscription to view it. In fact, I watched the broadcast rather than my cable feed just for this event due to the better quality of video. You are correct in pointing out the current infrastructure limitations inherent in internet video delivery, but “cord cutters” still have access to good old fashioned broadcasts for most large live events.

    • Doug Garnett says:

      Thanks, Peter. You are right about the truth that today’s “cord cutters” might have enjoyed the show on broadcast. (And I’ll tweak my post appropriately.)

      That was happenstance, though. Already, many pro football gamecasts are now on ESPN or on the NFL channel. Monday Nite football is no longer available over the air – it’s Cable only. And if an enthusiast wants to follow a college football team, then they need cable to get all the games that are on TV.

      So the challenge is: kill cable and you’ve killed the economic engine that drives sports programming – even if you happen to still be able to enjoy what you need over the airwaves.

      Thanks for the correction! Noted appropriately.


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  3. Brandon BInn says:

    You do also have to remember that all 111 million people were not watching the Superbowl on just cable TV. Satellite is a completely different delivery system and companies like Verizon and Frontier deliver “cable tv” over fiber optics.

    But that being said, the internet is a teenager. It’s really been in the last 15 years that we have really started to depend on the net for our daily needs and our current infrastructure is still not adequate for future needs. I think the main issue at hand though is the United States infrastructure is just not where it should be. It’s easy for countries like Japan to deploy new technologies due to their high population density. The US is so spread out it makes it much more difficult. I don’t think there’s any flaws in online TV theory. Can the US’s internet backbone be able to handle 111 million people streaming the game in 1080p hi def simultaneously? Probably not, but that is exactly where it’s headed and with the current population that is in fact streaming the systems seems more than adequate. When companies like Netflix state that they want to transition to 100% streaming and no hard media, you know that is where the rest of the industry is headed.

    Now let’s just wait until we see what kind of DRM the movie and TV studios roll out in the coming years.

    • Doug Garnett says:

      Hey, Brandon. Great to hear from you.

      We will have to see. But if there’s one thing American’s won’t stand, it’s ANYTHING that gets in the way of their sports programming. My main beef with the internet TV crowd is that they are generally pretty unrealistic about the TV business. None of the GoogleTV work shows an understanding of consumer need and interest. None of the other are reflective of much of this. So, this game is a great example of something that the internet isn’t built for. (I’m serious that it’s underpinnings are based around random access of small pieces scattered across the world. NOT, mass access of one thing coming from one source.)

      Apple seems to be the wisest ones – negotiating with the studios and networks in order to sell copyright protected content. They appreciate the copyright protection and the ownership of the content. And, technology aside, that gives them a huge edge over anyone else.

      It’s interesting to think that despite all the upheaval in the music business, the fundamentals of the music we can obtain are still pretty much unchanged. A few big studios dominate and can crank out stars like Justin Bieber. If you’re a local band, a few get a boost from the internet. But otherwise it’s a very hard road – just like it’s always been. (My brother’s band has been producing records since the 1980’s and they haven’t seen much help from the internet.) Maybe the internet’s true impact on music has been to destabilize the entire business while giving us easy ways to download on iTunes & other sites.

      But above all, internet TV needs to respect how powerful and solid our current system is before they use their investment money to try to tip it over so they can steal all the cash. 🙂


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  5. Anastasia says:

    This just proves that online TV is creating a big wave in the world of television.

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