In the world of broadcasting regulation, where up is down, black is white and 576p is HD, Stephen Conroy seems to achieved something of a coup: he’s substantially overhauled the anti-siphoning regime and hasn’t yet caused a major backlash from anyone — not the free-to-airs, not the subscription TV sector, not the much-overlooked sports rights holders.

But there’s a couple of bits of sleight-of-hand here. One is that the full details have yet to be finalised — in particular about the regime to compel the broadcasters to use the rights they acquire properly or on-sell them (in essence, the current anti-hoarding rules have been extended to automatically apply to everything on the anti-siphoning list), and about the guarantees the AFL and NRL will provide to ensure that quality matches remain on FTA.

The other is that Conroy has managed to do so much because he’s exploiting the fact that the current anti-siphoning system doesn’t work.

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Of the 1300 events on the current list, 75% aren’t shown live. That gives Conroy an awful lot of room to work in, and he’s used a bit of it — not as much as he should have, by any means, but it’s a start.

That’s the short answer as to why he can substantially shorten the list (not in terms of ditching stupid events like the French Open, but in relation to the AFL and NRL competition rounds) without having any effect on how much sport will be on FTA — because the FTAs already show so little.

Indeed, with the multichannelling change, viewers will probably see more sport — AFL fans north of the Murray will be able to see games on a digital channel while the “main channel” (a concept that will only last a couple more years) carries higher-rating content (e.g. old Clint Eastwood movies). Cricket fans will be able to watch the last half hour when Nine cuts away to the news.

In terms of winners and losers from this, the order probably runs:

  • AFL and NRL — who are now freed up to negotiate with both FTAs and subscription TV, rather than having to deal only with the FTA cartel;
  • The FTA cartel — it gets its long-sought multichannelling, enabling it to move sport — which other than blockbuster events doesn’t rate as well as normal primetime programming — off its main channel. Absurdly, and apparently as a direct gift to the Seven Network, the Australian Open remains fully listed, despite Seven routinely treating tennis fans with contempt. However, the FTAs also face a new set of requirements to carry sport live or near-live, or on-sell the rights, and their hand in negotiations with the AFL is now weaker;
  • Subscription television gets little — as usual. Forget the claim that they’re a big winner from this. A greater role in negotiations with the AFL and NRL is important — along with the cricket and one-off blockbuster events, they’re the big driver of subscriptions – but there won’t be more footy on subscription TV, and the list of events removed is nowhere near as extensive as it should have been;
  • Rights holders other than AFL and NRL get nothing — unless you’re the owner of one of the few delisted events. The removed events are mostly foreign events, so the benefits there go to foreign rights holders;
  • Socccer is the one outright loser. Football Federation Australia, which has had a lucrative, successful, mutually-rewarding relationship with Fox Sports, has been punished for the one-off mass audience interest shown whenever the Socceroos try to qualify for the World Cup. FFA used the World Cup qualifiers to spice up its domestic A-League rights. Now it has to sell the A-League without being able to bundle in the Socceroos. That will eventually result in less money for the grassroots game in Australia. Better hope we win the right to host the World Cup huh?

Oh there’s one more loser — the internet. The anti-siphoning scheme has been extended so that it covers anyone thinking of making events available online. This is less of an issue while we’re stuck with our dire, Howard-era broadband speeds, but once the NBN makes HD television services available via fibre, it will be potentially a significant driver of services.

Stephen Conroy, wearing that much-criticised “regulate the internet” hat, has strangled that particular industry at birth, unless the big sports rights holders — and we’re probably only really talking about the AFL — eventually decide to provide their own coverage direct to homes, freeing AFL fans from being reliant on the whims of the FTA cartel altogether. They won’t be caught by the anti-siphoning scheme, because there’d be no sale of rights to anyone.

Conroy insisted yesterday that the new scheme would put the interests of viewers first. That would be unusual for broadcasting policy, which over the decades has been primarily about looking after the interests of media companies and particularly the FTAs. But in this case, Conroy appears to be right — he has achieved some elements of reform without disadvantaging FTA viewers who have long been encouraged by politicians to think they should get something for nothing.

I referred at the start to the upside-down world of broadcasting regulation. Seen objectively, anti-siphoning is a scam that protects the FTA cartel, an act of parliament-sanctioned theft that transfers hundreds of millions of dollars from sports right holders to the FTAs, who are regularly given pretty much everything they want by compliant governments of both persuasions. But we all operate in this strange world where that is entirely ignored. And in that world, Conroy looks to have done very well.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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