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If it's Wimbledon it must be television

Without a lot of fanfare, Wimbledon this year has been offering video on demand from its Web site: an all-access pass for the entire fortnight cost £9.95, and I paid it to try out the service.

In recent years, Wimbledon has become the time to catch up on New TV. This year I've been playing off the video-on-demand downloads against digital and analog terrestrial and interactive cable. On Mad Monday – the second Monday, when Wimbledon insanely packs all 16 men's and women's fourth round singles matches into one day – I had all them going at once.

The best quality, at least here, was digital terrestrial, viewed on a 15.4in widescreen laptop via an external Freeview box. Widescreen format really suits tennis. The biggest choice of channels, though (five, to digital terrestrial's three or four), was on interactive cable. Analog displays here in 4:3, and although the picture quality is nice, the format is decidedly second-rate.

The official Wimbledon downloads are 4:3. Each time you download or open a file you are required to log in with your email address and password: they are protected content. If, however, you cheat by finding a utility strip off the DRM (thereby breaking several national laws) the 1Mb versions look watchably good sized up. (Some of these hacked versions are beginning to appear on torrent sites.)

Let's leave aside the whole DRM-is-evil thing, aside from noting that the Wimbledon site says you have access to the files you have paid to download for 45 days. I assume they turn into pumpkins after that.

Traditionally, the BBC and Wimbledon collaborated so that the matches people most wanted to see were on the biggest courts and the most available channel at the most convenient viewing time for the biggest number of people. In other words, Henman on Centre at 5:30pm, when people are coming home from work. Today's interactive coverage grows out of that idea, and so beyond a few basic principles it's difficult to predict what match will be broadcast when on which channel.

What is a channel? Wimbledon publishes its match schedule by the court. You can't predict exactly what time any match after the first will start. Anything can happen: rain, player injury, straight-set wipeout, six-hour marathon. And they keep switching around, which is unhelpful if you're going out.

Logically, in our new world, a channel should be a court. Occasionally, the digital terrestrial coverage worked like this, and it was helpful during rain delays that while the main broadcast channel (BBC2) busied itself with nature documentaries and replays, you could see the covers being rolled back and estimate accurately what time play would resume. Given enough cameras on site, you, the obsessive viewer, could deploy tuners and displays so you had a window onto every court and could move among them any way you liked.

Or a single topic. Let's have the "Practice Court channel." You can learn a lot about what the players are working on and how they build their strategies and games. Or how about the "Interview room channel", perhaps complete with a competition in which viewers get to pretend to be players and prizes are awarded for the most absurdly cliched answers? IBM competitors might particularly like the "IBM Hospitality Suite channel". And all of that is without the video clips that fans film and post.

The online Wimbledon Live service works more like that, but its basic unit is the match, not the court, and in my experience when a match finishes you have to restart the stream for the next match. The more useful thing is the archive, which lets you download and watch all sorts of stuff that generally doesn't get broadcast, such as veterans' matches, juniors, and early round mixed doubles. It's still not complete – of the 64 first-round women's singles matches 35 are available for download (compared to 40 of the men's) – but it's a lot closer.

We asked what a channel was, but that's small fry: writing in the Guardian this week on the contentious Television Without Frontiers EU directive, Peter Warren asked what is television? It used to be defined by the physics of its transmission. The BBC transmission of the match between Anastasia Myskina and Amelie Mauresmo is obviously television; is it still television if it's downloaded from the Wimbledon site? Or if someone sits courtside and sends clips to YouTube? Or if you happen to live overlooking the courts and set up your own camera, which you stream only to your circle of IPTV buddies?

We are rapidly moving towards a world where what we have thought of as television is increasingly a giant pool of video clips of varying lengths made with varying levels of funding and skill and transmitted via many different means. In the traditional channels' struggle to stay afloat, it seems to me that sports are going to be increasingly important because they have a characteristic almost nothing else shares: people want the emotional experience of seeing big pictures of them from faraway places in real time when they are actually happening.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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