Two very different media reports addressed the future of free-to-air TV in the last week. The contrast between them is especially interesting when read against the massive television audience attracted by the Matildas for their crucial match against Canada.
On the one hand, we have Scott Bryan writing for the Guardian in the UK and presenting the latest chapter in the continuing saga of the death of broadcast television. Over the last week, he wrote, the ratings for broadcast TV in the UK had experienced their most dramatic decline in history. ‘Even the over 60’s’, he says, are abandoning broadcast television now, while any generation younger than that left the building years ago.
On the other hand, we have reports of the ratings bonanza generated by the performance of the Matildas on free-to-air television over the last week in Australia. More than 2 million Australians tuned in to watch the Matildas play Canada, and when we factor in the new ratings measure of television’s ‘reach’ across metropolitan, regional and online catch-up services (VOZ), the figure goes past 4 million. That’s big. As Calum Jaspan in the Sydney Morning Herald claims, the FIFA Women’s World Cup has turned out to be ‘a boon’ to free-to-air television — even though it is only screening less than half the number of games to be played during the tournament.
Great for women in sport, of course, but also interesting for the amount of ‘water-cooler’ talk the Matildas have generated in workplaces, in other social settings, and within households. This has turned out to be a significantly shared national event. The popular embrace of the Matildas — enthusiasm for the joyful way they play, the fact that they always seem a chance of winning (not necessarily true of our men’s teams in elite sports), and their marked lack (so far) of hubris — is something that bears thinking about. We might well look back at this as one of those turning points in a history of gender in Australia’s popular culture.
The focus of Scott Bryan’s piece is his ‘fear for the future of popular culture’ as the influence of broadcast television fades. One of the core components of the personal experience of watching live broadcast television is the sense of ‘co-presence’, as we imagine that other members of the national community are watching along with us. That sense is reactivated and reinforced when we go to work the next morning, ready to talk to others who have watched the same program or event. Bryan is concerned that the fragmentation of the media landscape has made that much less of an everyday experience. His ‘fear’ is for the loss of a common culture, of the popular culture that broadcast television has done much to create. For so many, and for so much of our history, television has been a form of social glue which has held the community together.
While acknowledging the privileges that expanded choice provides, Bryan wonders if the volume of content that streaming services generate is sufficient to make up for the loss of that shared social experience. ‘Scrolling endlessly on a streamer to find something to watch is bad enough’, he says, but ‘worse is the feeling you may be the only person watching it’.
I can’t say I have had exactly that feeling myself, but I do understand what he is getting at — the pleasure that comes from belonging to something larger than oneself. In the age of economic individualism, the importance of social belonging has been undervalued. Nonetheless, the wave of national engagement that rippled through Australia’s popular culture in the wake of the Matilda’s win should remind us that these two forms of television do not have to be mutually exclusive options. We can maintain both, well into the future, if we decide to do so. That clearly won’t happen, however, without greater political will within government and some innovative thinking from the regulators. The commercial logics are all pushing in one direction and it will require some well calibrated market intervention to divert them. Right now, that seems unlikely. Indeed, the popular interest in the Matildas has come in spite of the fact that our government has not regarded the Women’s World Cup as of sufficient national importance to add to the anti-siphoning register. Clearly, as it faces the possible future that Scott Bryan fears, our popular culture is going to have to fend for itself.