Gee you’d fall over in amazement and do yourself harm if you believed the tripe that appeared in some media releases on Friday.

There were major sporting organisations claiming that anti-siphoning laws were bad for us viewers, agreeing with the push from the pay-TV industry, which hides behind ASTRA, or The Australian Subscription Radio and Television Association (which is dominated by Foxtel because it is the biggest and ugliest player in pay TV).

And then there’s Free TV Australia, a misnomer if ever there was one arguing in favour of the anti-siphoning list. As usual the submissions and arguments were full of contradictions, hypocrisy (especially from Foxtel and the major sports groups), conflicts of arrangements (Foxtel/News Ltd and Premier Media Group) and special-interest pleadings.

There was Foxtel arguing that it would be bad for sporting codes to have their sports shown to as many people as possible on the new digital channels of free-to-air TV.

But the crowning act, was in the US Friday night when the henna-haired old-stager himself, Rupert Murdoch, was threatening his US cable rivals with forcing them to pay him for carrying his Fox TV network.

“Going forward, we will be seeking retransmission dollars from our distributors. Asking cable companies and other distribution partners to pay a small portion of the profits they make by reselling broadcast channels, the most-watched channels on their systems, will help to ensure the health of the over-the-air industry in America.”

A gold medal-winning effort in the Media Masters Games for corporate hypocrisy, topping those fine efforts from the FTA mob, the pay-TV mob and Foxtel.

The American cable networks don’t have to pay and won’t. Besides some of Murdoch’s rival broadcasters, such as ABC (ESPN), NBC (USA) and CBS (Showtime), would not only pay Murdoch money, but would receive cash from Murdoch and Fox’s Cable networks. It would be a crazy round-robin of cash. But at 76 years of age, Murdoch doesn’t worry about details such as that; they are for others to sort out.

And you can hear Foxtel in Australia, which is 25% owned by News, and whose management is controlled by News agreeing with the master in signing cheques to pay Seven, Ten, Nine, the ABC and SBS. No, Foxtel would invent ways to avoid paying for the retransmission of Seven, Nine, Ten, the ABC and Foxtel on its cable and satellite platforms. And the same applies to Austar, the regional pay-TV operator, which is controlled by John Malone, an American cable mogul who wouldn’t give Rupert Murdoch a penny extra for anything.

But it’s one Murdoch argument that will find favour with the free-to-air networks in this country as they argue with Foxtel and its mates about the sport anti-siphoning rules.

The sports group, which includes the rich and greedy AFL, NRL, Tennis Australia, Cricket Australia and Football Federation, want the freedom to include Foxtel in its negotiations to increase their ability to screw more dollars from the free-to-air networks.

The presence of the Football Federation (aka soccer) in this group, is nothing short of hypocritical. It signed to an exclusive deal with Foxtel for seven years. Sometimes the national audiences for some A-League matches are exceeded by the attendances at some of the major games each round.

The others don’t want to do an exclusive deal with Foxtel because that would be commercial suicide, seeing pay-TV can only transit to about 30% of the country, including Austar.

The top 66 audiences on Foxtel each year are NRL games, not AFL, not cricket, not soccer, and yet the organisations representing them want to deal with the pay-TV industry, but don’t want to give them exclusive arrangements.

Foxtel wants an exclusive arrangement with either the NRL, or failing that, AFL, because that would become a big subscription driver, especially in NSW and Queensland where the audience for rugby league far outweighs that for the AFL. It would help Foxtel lift its subscriber numbers by forcing fans to pay for what they already watch for free.

Free TV Australia wants the right to show sport on its members new digital channels such as Ten’s ONE and Nine’s Go!

That’s competition Foxtel doesn’t want, illogically arguing:

“The combination of allowing the old networks exclusive first rights to over 13000 sports events — and allowing them the use of the expanded programming capacity on the (digital) channels to premier-listed events — could entail disastrous consequences for the sports codes, grass roots competitions and subscription TV.

“Such a policy would further increase the pricing power of the old networks, lock subscription TV out of bidding for many rights and thus allow the old networks to drive down the value of sports rights.”

But putting major sport on the FTA digital channels would boost the take up of digital TV for the 2013 turn off. That’s the only part of the FTA argument that can be supported and one that Foxtel ignores, which is odd given its pioneering work in digitalising its entire network and introducing PVRs

Perhaps Foxtel is embarrassed that Ten’s ONE, a sports channel, regularly gets audiences greater than those on any of the Fox Sports channels for regular programming. ONE has national coverage (but based on digital TV penetration of less than 50%). Foxtel doesn’t, nor does Austar.

Foxtel is just an old-fashioned monopolist and doesn’t like competition. In that it’s little different than the Free To Air TV mob with one important exception. There are five Free To Air TV networks and they are competitive. Foxtel isn’t.

Foxtel seems to forget that at the moment it and its sports packager, Premier Media (Fox Sports), are the two most profitable organisations in the Australian broadcast media, earning about $560 million in pre-tax earnings in the June 30, 2009 financial year between them. Foxtel earned $406 million, Premier Media, $153 million.

And how could sporting codes be damaged by being exposed to more people potentially than on pay-TV, as Foxtel claims? Foxtel has the financial resources and the clout to demand its share of the major codes, and it does with rugby league and union, the AFL and cricket, and as it will do with the Nine networks on the Winter Olympics next year and the summer Games in London in 2012. It bailed out Nine a few years ago by grabbing coverage of the one-day interstate cricket matches. the audiences for those are now a mere shadow of what they were on Nine.

Premier Media is 50% owned by Consolidated Media and News Ltd, Foxtel is 50% owned by Telstra and 25% each by News and Cons Media, with Kerry Stokes owning 20% of CMH and James Packer about 43%.

News owns 50% of the NRL, but doesn’t want it screwing more money from the likes of Nine, Ten or Seven because that would see Foxtel/Premier Media forced to pay more for their rights.

It’s a case of one rule for them and other for us in this business.

And finally, Free TV Australia is presently considering submissions about its code of practice that it won’t talk about, or release any of the submissions. Not a jot. It’s cone-of-silence stuff.

So it wants the federal government to continue the matey deal on sports anti-siphoning list, but won’t talk about or release details of comments on its proposed new code of practice, which is arguably far more important for Australian TV viewers than any government anti-siphoning list.

It’s a toss up to see who is the more conflicted: News Corp, News Ltd, Free TV, Foxtel and its pay-TV mates or the major sporting codes.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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