The reason you're annoyed about the PGA Championship coverage? Amara's Law

The Scoop

There was uproar at the live coverage of the PGA Championship, and it's all to do with a theory put forward by a Stanford scientist. Tom Irwin explains

It is very easy to look foolish when making predictions about how technology will evolve.

It was purported by a Stanford University computer scientist – who was the holder of my favourite ever job title, ‘Head of the Institute for the Future’ – Roy Amara, who said:

We tend to overestimate the impact of a new technology in the short term, but we underestimate it in the long run.

Amara’s Law.

Along comes an invention or a discovery and everyone goes mad with its immediate possibilities. Take your pick really, from space travel to mobile phones. A new thing happens, we are all booking our holidays to the moon, then some time passes and not a lot changes or it doesn’t work.

Cynics start to say the whole thing was hype and we’ve been duped. Which turns out to be just the inflexion point when the technology turns ubiquitous and successful. That is the modern day tech cycle that Amara has so succinctly described.

Think about the internet. There was a huge boom in the value of internet stocks between 1995 and 2000, with huge investment, and there were millions of us waiting for e-toys to load properly. We got bored. The tech failed, ownership of hardware was not ubiquitous, upload speeds were snail-like and people got fed up. There was an enormous pricking of the bubble sometime around 2002 and everyone gave up on the internet for a bit, as if it were a Cabbage Patch Doll. Now look what has happened.

Amara’s Law brings clarity to this folly.

The PGA Championship broadcast on Eleven Sports is a case study of Amara’s Law played at x30 on your Sky button.

One of the first live sporting events in the US to be streamed was the Ohio State football game in 2001 – imagine the buffering – so this particular cycle actually started about 17 years ago.  Since then momentum has built and built, we are told every day that this is the future, and many laugh at silly old television channels.

Yet here we are the first really serious live stream of our sport and we are all very angry.

Eleven Sports

The viewing figures were not the best and the coverage was not the sharpest this weekend. The mood in the Twitter echo chamber seems to be that we need to get golf back behind Sky’s paywall as quickly as possible if we want to grow the game, save the sport, return sanity, save our eyes from straining to see a small screen and unravel ourselves from a snake pit of HDMI cables. It is a failure, bring back the good old BBC all is forgiven.

We are in the eye of an Amara’s storm.

Internet broadcasting was the future last Thursday, and it remains the future today. It is here to stay, so hold on to your Fire Stick, get your tablet out of the bin, and start saving for a Smart TV.

Just as the internet had a gigantic false start and came again, so will this use of it.

An unintended consequence of these departures from our staple of Sky broadcasts is that we get all misty eyed about Butch, and Sarah and dear old Nick. Like an injured footballer, they get much better in our minds when they are not playing. It is beyond doubt that Sky are brilliant presenters of content, but it should be acknowledged that is exactly what they are: presenters.

They do not produce content. They buy it from others. They are aggregators. They purchase pictures and then package them brilliantly and, crucially, they make it easy for you to buy and to consume.

For all of the pining for Sky’s production values this weekend it was the ease of viewing that we really missed.

Having the golf on the ‘big TV’ while we go about our lives, that is what we do. We don’t want to have to tether, or upload, or subscribe, or get another goddamn password. Please save us from more passwords. I can’t take it and neither can you.

Our real issue this weekend was nothing to do with Dominik Holyer and Jamie Donaldson in their broom cupboard in South West London, or Golfing World presenter Anna Whiteley and YouTuber Seb Carmichael-Brown at Bellerive.

It was being unable to remember whether or not you put a capital letter on your mum’s maiden name and which of your children’s birthdays you had used.

Many of the people who didn’t watch were not luddites. They just couldn’t be bothered or didn’t know where to watch it and by the time they had found out had started watching the fourth season of Sherlock because that is what was on Sky. We are discerning only when it is made easy for us.

The only thing that is apparent though is that the consumer is in for a long and expensive journey as this unravels, and as the number of subscriptions, devices, and channels required to watch your favourite sports increases, something will need to give.

I only watched the final round this weekend, it was too much hassle, don’t like giving up my card details, and better things to be doing before Sunday night ticked round and Tiger Woods was in the mix.

It is that kind of viewer apathy that is the real danger for rights holders and it is that that makes the recklessness the PGA have shown with their broadcasting decision all the more surprising.

Sky has already shifted its model so you can subscribe to just your favourite sport, rather than them all. You would imagine the future is that we will be buying coverage direct from rights holders or governing bodies.

For all its ability to give us access to millions of new things the unintended consequence of the internet is that it actually lets us choose. We choose who we follow, we choose what to like, we can curate our online news to suit our own views.

Sports broadcasting will follow suit. And when it does I will be subscribed to Grimsby Town TV, the Tiger Woods channel, and whatever is showing The Open.

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