Johan Cruyff died in March, and for the three of you who don’t know who he was, this guy was a handsome, floppy-haired footballer from Holland, who transformed sport, television and the Dutch in the seventies.
He appealed to radically chic daughters and seventies-meek mums in much the same way Bowie did, or in the same way someone like that would do now; if there were anyone like that. He was one of the first global TV products and yet remained as slim, elegant and local to the proud Dutch as a tulip.
By speaking his mind - whatever came into it - he innovated constantly and challenged ideas just as often. But he was also pretty interested in making money out of his art, believing that the local baker in Barcelona, where he lived happily and died, would not give him free bread when he was 65 just because his name was Johan Cruyff. His universal appeal meant that people across Europe wanted to see him play every week and wanted to hear him give authority a clip round the ears every time he met a journalist. It helped in no small measure that he was a genius, and when he turned football into a global product by playing for the New York Cosmos, at a time when television couldn’t distribute global products, it was just another example of him seeing the future before it came. As he said at the time, “I only seem fast because I start running slightly earlier than everyone else”.
The Premier League didn’t have a Cruyff in the nineties but in one way at least it has been even more successful. They went about building the biggest worldwide show on offer through a tidy combination of velvet-green HD pitches, a clever historic 'home of football' brand, and a dose of piping hot stadium atmosphere. Where Cruyff was just playing how he saw it, speaking how he felt, and wearing a dashing orange kit, the EPL were completely rewriting the rules of live television without even mentioning the football. And they took the result everywhere, flooding that same ‘home of football’ with more revenues (and visitors) than the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky combined. The EPL is now truly global and wondering how it can stop people like pub landlady Karen Murphy from challenging its right to license football rights country by country by using a Greek decoder to show the Premier League in Portsmouth. Or even, if it needs to stop her.
So television has already gone global through what we should call the ‘viewer pull’ of a charismatic rebel and the ‘content push’ of marketing masterminds.
At the same time, there’s another spin to global television afforded by technology, which doesn’t have the same 'James Bond villain' ring to it. How about just making it easy to watch the programmes you want to watch wherever you are, for no better reason than the fact that you’ve paid for them? Or, helping a TV producer distribute a quality series that got a 35% viewing share at home but didn’t get any international buyers because it was up against a €25M blockbuster hit like The Night Manager. It could even be because the series was made in German and nobody fancied footing the subtitling bill. Or, because there's an elusive insurance policy which TV Execs look for in an acquisition and which can be summed up as, “If I buy this and it fails, I won’t get sacked because everyone else has bought it”.
Or, how about giving a content producer the tools to target, track and monetize any programme they distribute, anywhere in the world? Audiences everywhere paying just enough to keep the cameras rolling and the storytellers telling, but not too much to make them turn to, or return to piracy.
These are the challenges that OTT was made for. Help out the viewers as they try and make TV theirs again, make watching a programme almost unethically easy, keep the revenues flowing back to the programme-makers so they can stay creative, and lastly, give some kind of human meaning to pat corporate phrases like global TV. What worldwide television ought to mean, outside its legitimate need to get paid for its programming, is that back in the day, anyone would have been able to follow Johan Cruyff any day of the week and twice on Sundays. But only if they were interested in doing that.
Image Credit: Johan Cruyff in 1987 by Rob Bogaerts (ANEFO). Image Rights.