If you want a prize example of just how facile the anti-siphoning debate can be, you’ve been well-served in the past 24 hours. It’s not likely to improve as the issue comes onto the political agenda in coming weeks.

“Some blockbuster AFL games could disappear from free-to-air television,” was the dramatic beginning of a front-page piece by Caroline Wilson in The Age yesterday, which detailed how changes to the anti-siphoning list might enable what’s called the “partial delisting” of the big footy codes, so that several matches each weekend could be on subscription TV.

Where to start…

Well, how about with the fact that plenty of matches already aren’t screened on FTA TV under arrangements negotiated under the current anti-siphoning list. Four a week, to be exact. And that, of course, is in the southern states.

In the northern states, only two matches are shown on FTA TV. Two others are shown on FTA on delay, sometimes by up to four hours. Occasionally, only one match is shown live in the northern states. Subscription TV always shows them live.

Maybe Wilson doesn’t go north of the border much, but up there your chances of seeing her “blockbuster AFL games” live are minimal, under current arrangements.

But the real falsehood here is the idea of games “disappearing”. This is one of the most successful lies peddled by the FTA oligopoly, a myth perpetuated for years and used to ward off any serious consideration of ending the scam that is anti-siphoning. Removing events from the anti-siphoning list doesn’t mean they’ll automatically go to subscription TV. They won’t be — as the name ‘siphoning’ suggests — somehow spirited off by Fox Sports under cover of darkness. It just means that there’ll be more competition for sports rights.

At the moment the FTA oligopoly has monopsony power when it comes to events on the anti-siphoning list. The AFL, the NRL, any sport unfortunate enough to be listed, has to deal with the FTA oligopoly. They can’t go anywhere else.

It massively reduces competitive tension in the sale of sports rights, particularly when the networks collude on joint bids. And it means sports rights holders get less — a lot less — for their sporting rights.

If the anti-siphoning list disappeared — which it will on December 31, though sadly it’ll be replaced with another one — FTA networks could still broadcast blockbuster sporting events — they’d just face a competitive market for the rights to those events for the first time.

What the anti-siphoning list does is shift revenue that rightfully belongs to the sports rights holder, revenue they could obtain in a more competitive market, to the FTA networks. Money that the AFL or the NRL could spend on the grassroots game, on junior development, on coaches spending freezing winter weekend mornings getting kids to have a run around — siphoned off by the FTA oligopoly.

It’s legitimated theft for which the sports rights holders have never been given a cent of compensation. And it has stymied the development of FTA’s TV competitor, subscription TV.

Partial delisting wouldn’t fix this but would introduce a bit more competitive tension into the sports bidding process.

In response to the Wilson story, the Greens emerged this morning to declare they may oppose a shorter anti-siphoning list, warning about “key AFL matches, the Australian Open Tennis and even Olympic events” being “siphoned off” by subscription television. Brown reiterated his concern about the Australian Open at a press conference this morning. And Greens communication spokesman Scott Ludlam went further and proposed adding Twenty20 cricket and the European Cup (presumably soccer) to the list.

It’s funny the Greens mention the Australian Open, which is one of the least-screened events on the anti-siphoning list — only 10% of Open matches are screened live by Seven. It’s now a summer ritual for viewers to complain about high-profile matches not being screened because the Seven Network insists on showing Home and Away or Today Tonight.

The oligopolist Seven claims that it’s wrong to say it doesn’t show most of the event — by relying on the ruse that it only purchases rights to a small number of matches. But the whole event is listed, and Tennis Australia can’t inject any competitive tension into the contest for its broadcast rights. And this year, Seven didn’t even on-sell any rights to unscreened matches to subscription TV.

This is the dirty secret of anti-siphoning, you see: it doesn’t work in keeping events on FTA TV. In fact, only about 25% of the events on the anti-siphoning list are screened live by FTA TV.

Ludlam’s idea of adding more foreign events to the list is lunatic. Adding a low-interest event such as European soccer to the list won’t ensure it is broadcast on FTA, it’ll just make life more difficult for subscription TV and the rights holder. And we’ve already got enough ridiculous foreign events on the list as it is. Currently, the list includes “the men’s and women’s singles quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals of the French Open tennis tournament”. But as the Fédération Française de Tennis pointed out last year, not even the French themselves do this.

“The current anti-siphoning legislation in Australia … exceeds even the national protection accorded to our tournament within France, where only the finals are required to be broadcast on national free-to-air television,” the Fédération’s media director Michel Grach said. Nearly all of the European countries that have listed the European championships only require matches involving their national team, and the finals, to be screened on FTA — and most require them to be broadcast live and in full.

Ignore the politicians and the facile media coverage. Anti-siphoning isn’t about ensuring you can watch big sporting events on FTA TV . It’s just another way for the FTA oligopoly to maximise their revenue by blocking the one thing that truly terrifies them — competition.

Peter Fray

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