In The Australian today, Senator Conroy has had a moan about why the critical Collingwood-Bulldogs match from the last round of the AFL in 2009 wasn’t on Free To Air TV, but on Pay.

“Why, asked Conroy, was such an important game consigned to a medium that reaches only 34 per cent of Australians? What is the point of an anti-siphoning list  that prevents pay-TV from bidding directly for mainstream sport if the match of the round is not shown live on free-to-air?”

Most Communications Ministers manage to resist the temptation to use their position as a sort of super program scheduler, offering the networks advice on what they should and shouldn’t be airing. But when it comes to sport, Conroy, who never misses an opportunity to remind people of his passion for soccer (Chelsea) and AFL (Collingwood), is different.

Tonight’s opening game between Richmond and Carlton is on the Ten Network. Ten will show it live in Melbourne, Victoria, Adelaide and Perth markets and on delay in northern (rugby league markets), where a live broadcast would be ratings death on the main channel.

Ten has been inundated by queries from viewers wanting to know why it can’t be shown nationally on ONE, the network’s digital sports-only channel.

Viewers apparently are unaware that FTA networks are legislatively prohibited from showing an event on the anti-siphoning list live on their  digital channels when they are showing something else on their main channels.  ONE could show tonight’s match in the southern states, but not in the northern states if it wasn’t on the main channel.

That ban was the one bone pay-TV came out the 2006 media reforms with, and they won’t give it up without a savage fight, because FTA digital sports coverage would significantly increase competition for the sports channels on pay-TV. It would also enable the FTAs to end the one thing that could undermine their hold on sporting events – viewer resentment that they can’t see events the networks have decided wouldn’t rate well enough.

Ten has asked the Government to remove the ban and allow them to show sport like tonight’s game on ONE when they are broadcasting other programming on the main channel.  Seven and Nine would like to be able to do likewise.

The multichannelling ban makes no sense – particularly for a Government that wants to encourage digital take-up – but its removal would rightly send the pay-TV sector into meltdown, given how comprehensively this and previous governments have favoured the FTAs.  It’s a classic example of how a mogul-based media policy that tries to placate the major players undermines good outcomes for viewers.

But let’s be a little mischievous: Conroy in fact could let Ten show tonight’s match on ONE in the northern states. Removing the multichannelling ban requires legislation, but the anti-siphoning list itself is purely a ministerial creation. If Conroy wants to play the role of super program scheduler, he could, with a few taps on his laptop, amend the list this afternoon to remove any AFL matches held today, email it to the Attorney-General’s Department and have a Special Gazettal done and dusted before the first bounce.

That’s assuming the Prime Minister would permit it. It has been the micro-managerial hand of Kevin Rudd that has delayed the Government’s response to the anti-siphoning review thus far, annoying the AFL, which wants to get cracking on its rights negotiations for the 2012 season and beyond.

Broadcasting policy is complex enough at the best of times. With Conroy now flagging the Government wants to start considering all of media policy, including diversity protections and local content, the mind boggles at how much more difficult our control freak of a Prime Minister will make it.