Watching sport on television – no longer a passive activity?

by Steve

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I recently read an article in the International Herald Tribune about how sports coverage on television in the States is evolving. Cable companies have started to integrate twitter feeds into their service, so viewers can not only watch the feed while they watch a game, but also tweet themselves through their remote control.

mlb.tv, meanwhile, has integrated twitter into its media player, so you can tweet (with hash tags handily added for the game in question) and read the feed as the game progresses. I’ve tried this myself and it really is a fun addition. I imagine it works well with sports like baseball and (American) football as there are so many intervals in play. As the match is made of a series of discrete moments there are plenty of opportunities to tweet, and read other people’s tweets. Would this work so well in a faster-paced sport like basketball, ice hockey or football? I’m not sure.

As the article suggests, this sort of interaction makes watching sport at home a lot more like watching sport in a bar or with friends. Rather than just letting the game wash over you, you can state your opinion and find out what other people think, in real time from the comfort of your very own comfy chair.

‘Interactivity’ isn’t necessarily new in sporting coverage on television. Here in England, the BBC has experimented with ‘red button’ technology, where the viewer can choose which match to watch at Wimbledon, or which audio stream to listen to when watching the football – the TV commentary, radio commentary, or no commentary at all. Sky has offered similar options, plus offering a number of camera options for games. But did anyone ever watch the player cam, focusing on one man all game?

What’s interesting about the twitter developments are that the ‘interactivity’ is all about creating dialogues, between viewers and also between the viewer and the television company. Previous technology has concentrated on providing a series of viewing options. The experience remained a passive one. Now the viewer isn’t restricted to shouting impotently at the TV. Now s/he can share those views. And have them saved for posterity on his/her twitter feed.

Will this revolutionise television? Probably not in the short-term. There will always be plenty of people who aren’t interested in articulating their views, and certainly not interested in reading the views of others. There is also the quality control issue. If the feed is full of drivel, it won’t catch on.

However, if it can be built upon and refined, interactive sporting coverage on television could work. It certainly seems the best ‘genre’ for it. It’s on regularly, has a dedicated and opinionated audience, and its integral unpredictability should, most of the time, bring up plenty to comment on. A twitter feed alone may not be the answer, but something more sophisticated might be just around the corner, that will put a stop to television being a purely passive pastime for the majority of viewers.

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