The arrogant complacency of the free-to-air commercial networks was displayed in exemplary fashion last night by the Nine Network, which ended its coverage of the NRL grand final in Melbourne within minutes of the final siren, ensuring Melbourne viewers — 650,000 of them — saw nothing of the post-match celebrations for their local side. Nine felt another edition of its increasingly parochial and under-resourced news bulletin was more important.
Nine, and Seven and Ten, can afford to treat viewers how they like when it comes to sport, because they are protected from competition by the anti-siphoning scheme, a relic of the days of broadcasting barons and analog television. No amount of outrage from disappointed fans will convince the networks not to act exactly as they see fit. It’s the sort of mentality that explains why free-to-air viewership is in remorseless decline.
The Federal Government is currently reviewing the anti-siphoning scheme. The chances of reform don’t look promising. Both sides of politics long ago committed to adopt a “use it or lose it” approach to the list, meaning they would remove events from the list if they weren’t adequately covered. The Howard Government never removed any events, and the only signs from Stephen Conroy are that he wants to actually increase the list by returning his beloved soccer to it, and perhaps extend it to regulate online services.
That News Ltd is engaged in an ongoing anti-Labor campaign in its political coverage is hardly going to help the chances of genuine reform. News Ltd, as quarter-owner of Foxtel and half-owner of Fox Sports, would be the biggest beneficiary of any relaxing of the list.
Like many regulatory mechanisms intended to “protect” consumers, anti-siphoning in practice hurts them by preventing competition among media companies. It is a bad policy — meaning it is right at home in the way Australia regulates the media.