It turns out that reports of the death of TV at the hands of Live 8 and America Online were greatly exaggerated.
Soon after the July 2 concerts, the conventional wisdom set in: The event was a turning point in the way people consume entertainment, as millions more viewers chose to watch AOL’s video streams of performances from venues around the world instead of tuning in to ABC’s or MTV’s ad-riddled, wretchedly produced day-long presentation. Why, just look at the numbers! Five million for AOL and just 2.9 million for ABC! “MTV and sister station VH1 had an average viewership of only 2.2 million viewers,” the Los Angeles Times said of the channels’ “soft ratings.”
In a bit of typical post-concert analysis, the Philadelphia Inquirer said, “The Internet left cable in the dust. To put it bluntly, MTV sank and AOL soared.”
The first warning sign should have been the trumpeting of AOL as cool and popular—the last time anyone heard that was, oh, about 1998. It turns out that the ratings being bandied about resulted in apples-and-oranges comparisons, unless you read the fine print. AOL’s 5 million figure was a cumulative number; the average viewership was 175,000 at any one time.
It’s like tallying the number of people in Chicago’s O’Hare airport right now versus the cumulative number who will pass through it today. The ABC and MTV numbers in the 2 millions were averages. The networks’ cumulative audiences: 16.2 million for ABC’s two hours of coverage, and 13.3 million and 9.1 million, respectively, for MTV’s and VHI’s eight-hour simulcasts. Oh, and AOL’s numbers were global, not just U.S.
The aesthetics of the coverage was another thing. Clearly, AOL won that war, and a chastened MTV and VH1 announced a do-over telecast for July 9 that showcased the music instead of the talking airheads.