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With the 2018 World Cup final in sight, and the wait almost over to see who will lift the iconic Jules Rimet trophy, everyone is vying for the best seat in the house – the one right in front of the TV screen.

There are those who believe TV’s role in major live events is declining, and that engagement with this year’s World Cup has been about media snacking – watching goal replays on YouTube via smartphones or viewing video clips of players in their hotel rooms posted on social media. But these cynics fail to comprehend the central role television still plays in terms of viewer engagement.   

Pivotal moments – sporting or otherwise – unite viewers around the world in front of their TV screens. For instance the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle attracted up to 13 million viewers in the UK, with the worldwide audience thought to be in the hundreds of millions, while 186 million tuned in for the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest.

There are three reasons traditional TV still reigns supreme for major live events:

First, viewers want to be in the moment, experiencing the event as it unfolds.

Unlike TV dramas, where binge watching an entire box set in one day, or watching later via catch up is the norm, you only get the anticipation and excitement of major events when watched in real time. England’s World Cup semi-final with Croatia attracted 26 million viewers. Of course, some viewers are watching the tournament on catch-up TV, but avoiding the results is virtually impossible, and the enjoyment is never quite the same after the event.   

Second, viewers still value the immersive experience of the big screen.

According to an Ernst & Young survey into World Cup viewing, 88% of UK consumers will watch matches on TV, although other devices may be used for short video clips including goal replays and specific incidents. The same survey revealed 87% of consumers rate watching football on TV as a good experience, versus just 31% who enjoy watching on smartphones, implying mobile devices are largely used when the TV set is inaccessible, for instance while commuting or at work. Some viewers stream matches using on-demand services such as the BBC iPlayer or ITV Hub, but even here they favour the large screen experience, with ITV research revealing 70% of viewers watch broadcaster video-on-demand via their TV set.

Finally, live events are all about bringing people together and sharing experiences with friends and family, which is possibly why the BBC decided to waive its licence fee for royal wedding street parties earlier this year. Gathering together around a communal TV screen is simply more fun than watching events individually on a smartphone or tablet. Over half of UK consumers say they are making a social event of the World Cup, watching at home with other people or at a friend’s house, and Sky Media research reveals watching content in groups makes viewers happier and more energised.

It’s important to remember that ‘TV’ is a term covering a whole range of services and technologies for those that provide content – whether linear, OTT, live streaming or IPTV. However viewers don’t make this distinction, and probably don’t really care what platform they are using. They have become adept at seamlessly navigating between TV, addressable and digital, and expect a seamless user experience to match. Broadcasters must manage the fragmented nature of the multi-screen audience while providing consistent experience and measurement to really make the most of each event.

In marketing terms, TV coverage of events still provides a unique opportunity for brands to reach highly-engaged audiences. For instance, the World Cup gives access to the coveted 18-34 male audience who are usually light TV consumers, with over three-quarters of this demographic watching the tournament. Its global reach is also why Freewheel has been working with five broadcasters during the World Cup – NBCU and Fox in the US and TF1, Mediaset and RTÉ in Europe to develop different advertising management solutions for each. Advertisers shouldn’t, however, ignore digital disruption and changing viewing habits, but instead use it to complement their TV campaigns. For example, Sky Media research reveals adding video-on-demand to a linear TV campaign can increase purchase intent by 18%.

Evolving consumption habits may be changing the media landscape, but the real-time, immersive, communal nature of the TV screen guarantees its central role in major events. TV is still a ratings winner and the most effective way for advertisers to reach engaged viewers, and when supported by a complementary digital and social strategy it only further amplifies campaign effectiveness.

Thomas Bremond is general manager, international at Comcast