Some of you may have been watching Wimbledon. Perhaps following the efforts of Australia’s oldest 8 year old, Lleyton Hewitt.
The Nine Network, of course, has the rights to broadcast Wimbledon, primarily through the operation of the Federal Government’s anti-siphoning list, which prevents subscription television from obtaining the rights to events unless free-to-air broadcasters have passed them up. The list was conjured up by the Keating Government and strongly supported by the Coalition. It amounts to direct, government-approved theft from sports bodies, who receive lower revenue for their broadcast rights than they would in a genuinely competitive market, and a handout to free-to-air broadcasters, who pay less for those rights than they otherwise would.
The purpose is to give a tiny but vociferous minority of television viewers who’d rather watch sport than a thirty-year old Clint Eastwood movie but are too lazy to get Foxtel, something for nothing. And to keep the subscription television industry enfeebled, at the behest of the free-to-air networks – something it has failed to do.
The list is misleading, however, because Nine won’t show all, or even a large proportion, of Wimbledon. In 2007, the last year for which figures are available, Nine showed less than 10% of the event, and only 4% live. In fact, to be fair, it would be impossible for Nine to show what is on the list, because the whole event is listed, that comprises several hundred matches, many going simultaneously, and some on courts without cameras. Fulfilling the letter of the law and showing the whole lot would be impossible even if Nine wanted. And Nine has a deal with Fox Sports to pass on some matches, if it feels inclined to.
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Still, Wimbledon gets more coverage than the French Open (no free-to-air coverage at all), the business end of which remains on the anti-siphoning list, along with the fag end of the US Open and all of the Australian Open (10% of which Seven managed to broadcast live in 2008). The anti-siphoning list was clearly crafted in the days when Australian tennis players hadn’t changed their names by deed poll to add “was bundled out in straight sets” as a suffix.
The French Open isn’t the silliest thing on the list. How many people seriously care about Australian golf tournaments unless obese American alcoholics are strangling photographers? But the Australian Open AND the Australian Masters – yes, there are two such tournaments in Australia – are on the list. Each round. Each round, each shot from each non-entity of a local or foreigner too hopeless to get on the US tour.
The whole problem of free-to-air networks being unable or unwilling to broadcast events was supposed to be addressed by the “use it or lose it” rule, which was adopted by the previous Government as a supposed quid pro quo to the subscription television sector for loosening restrictions on free-to-air broadcasters in the 2006 media reforms. Under the “use it or lose it” approach, free-to-air coverage of listed events was monitored by the broadcasting regulator ACMA and events that weren’t appropriately covered would be removed from the list.
Stephen Conroy in Opposition declared that Labor supported the “principle” of use it or lose it. “Free to air broadcasters should not be able to ‘hoard’ sport and deny viewers access,” he said. As Minister, Conroy slightly strengthened his position, telling the subscription television sector last year he “unequivocally supports use it or lose it”.
But despite a demonstrated lack of using, there hasn’t been any losing. In 2006, the subscription television sector pushed hard but unsuccessfully for “use it or lose it” to be enshrined in legislation. Their instincts were correct. No events have been removed from the list since 2006. In fact, last year Conroy told ACMA to stop monitoring coverage. ACMA’s reports were showing that a number of events were getting minimal coverage from the free-to-airs.
There is, however, to be a “review” of anti-siphoning. This isn’t just another Rudd Government review. The current anti-siphoning list ends at the end of 2010, and a review is legislatively required by the end of the year. Which is to say that, at some point before 31 December, Conroy must “cause to be conducted” a review. It may never actually see the light of day, just so long as Conroy “causes it to be conducted”.
According to Conroy’s office, however, the discussion paper for the review will be issued in the next few weeks. Crikey understands that the paper has been prepared and cleared by his Department and simply awaits Conroy’s convenience.
The Productivity Commission has already made its views clear. Last week it ripped into the list, calling it outdated, burdensome, inherently anti-competitive, harmful to sporting bodies, of limited effectiveness and far longer than comparable lists overseas. It wants it abolished or dramatically shortened.
This being media policy, however, the views of the PC, of respondents to the forthcoming discussion paper, of the Department of Communications – indeed, of Stephen Conroy – don’t matter a great deal. For a start, broadcasting is one of those areas in which everyone thinks they’re an expert , so Cabinet decisions become particularly fraught. Daryl Williams went to Cabinet with a shorter version of the current list in 2004 and his Cabinet colleagues promptly added all sorts of crap like golf to it.
More particularly, any significant changes to anti-siphoning would deeply anger the free-to-air networks and be a boon to News Ltd, as quarter-owner of Foxtel and half-owner of Fox Sports, which would be the biggest beneficiary of a shortened list.
And while ever it doesn’t control a free-to-air network in Australia, the media policy cards are stacked against News Ltd. It can run all the anti-Labor campaigns in The Oz and its tabloids that it likes, but the evening television news bulletins remain far more potent as shapers of opinion, particularly during election campaigns.
That’s why significant media policy decisions are made by Prime Ministers, and you may have noticed that both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have been singling out News Ltd papers for criticism of late in relation to the fake email business. The other players in the game are Foxtel’s half-owner Telstra and James Packer’s CMH. Telstra is another company of enormous popularity in Canberra at the moment; indeed; the Government is publicly considering forcing Telstra to divest its share of Foxtel. And CMH’s abandonment on the Nine Network means the Packer family is no longer quite the media player it was in the days of Sir Frank and Kerry.
Accordingly there’ll be no changes to anti-siphoning without the beneficiaries providing some serious quid pro quo. Indeed, the forthcoming review might even extend the free-to-airs’ grip on listed events by allowing them to multichannel different events.
Sports rights holders shouldn’t get their hopes up that the anti-siphoning rort will end anytime soon.