What the Mayweather-Pacquiao Distribution Problems Say About the Future of Linear Television

Of the many, many issues with the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, from the fact it took so long to be put together to the continued arguments even after the fight came together to Credential-gate to the lackluster nature of the fight itself, the one that I found to be most interesting, and most telling both of the problems facing boxing and of the future of big-time sporting events in general, was the massive problems just getting the fight to the people who ordered it on pay-per-view. Every major cable system and probably most of the top minor systems were fending off complaints:

Though the cable systems took the brunt of the abuse, I’m not sure they were really to blame. HBO and Showtime called on people to “order early to avoid possible problems late” out of fear “the system” wouldn’t be able to handle a surge of orders, and the use of the singular suggests their concerns were on the joint venture’s end. As people flooded Twitter and operator lines with complaints on Saturday, though, HBO seemed to pass the buck back to distributors, so maybe I’m reading too much into it. Regardless, the result was the same: so many people wanted to watch the fight that “the system” couldn’t handle them all, to the point that the fight itself was delayed 45 minutes to allow all the orders to be processed. That doesn’t happen with other live events with far larger audiences than the over 3 million estimated buys of this fight:

What’s the difference? When it comes to events like the Super Bowl, cable operators don’t have to process each order individually – anyone can just turn on whatever channel the game is on if they’re already subscribed to or otherwise able to receive it. Hmm, I wonder if there’s any other means of distribution that’s like pay-per-view in this way

Besides serving as a potential knockout punch (if you’ll pardon the pun) to the idea that the Internet can ever replace linear television entirely, more evidently and directly this debacle raises serious questions about whether or not the Internet might lead to more widespread adoption of the pay-per-view model, which this fight showed cannot scale to the level of many millions of households with or without the benefits of linear television. Broadcasters are hoping to include the ability to restrict their content to paying customers like cable networks have in the next-generation television standard, but methinks that’s more likely to take the form of the subscription model than a pay-per-view model; I can’t imagine big events like the Super Bowl moving to a platform any more restricted than an ESPN/HBO-type platform (and I certainly hope the NFL, already courting streaming disaster with this upcoming season’s experiment with airing one London game on a digital platform, won’t compound it by making it a pay-per-view experience). Indeed, I can’t help but wonder, assuming there’s sufficient economic incentive to avoid this fate in the future, whether the WWE’s move to a subscription model with the WWE Network, as well as boxing’s sudden recolonization of broadcast and non-premium cable television this year (by way of Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions), might be rooted in a recognition that both “sports” might need to either dump the PPV model entirely or at least maintain the advantages of linear television if either one is going to continue to survive and thrive in the media landscape of the future.

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