The rift between the ABC and SBS over the ABC’s bid for the FIFA Asian Cup grew ever wider yesterday, after the chiefs of both organisations were grilled on the topic.

After The Australian quoted SBS chief executive Michael Ebeid on Monday as saying he was “flabbergasted” by the ABC’s successful $1.5 million bid for the football rights, ABC managing director Mark Scott rejected claims there was anything untoward in the ABC’s actions.

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“Football Federation Australia came to us and asked us whether we’d bid for the Asian Cup,” Scott said at the Screen Forever conference in Melbourne. “We looked at the proposal upon its merit and thought it would be good to broaden our audience and bring different kinds of people to the ABC.”

The ABC only put in the one bid to Fox Sports for the rights, Scott said, so suggestions of a bidding war were inaccurate. He also rejected claims the ABC had wasted money bidding for the rights, saying that what the ABC had paid was ultimately considered insufficient before being topped up by a contribution from the FFA.

“There’s this suggestion that Michael Ebeid and I should pick up the phone and chat to each other about what we’re bidding for,” Scott said. “If [Seven chief] Tim Worner and [Nine chief] David Gyngell did that they’d go to jail.”

But Scott’s suggestion that discussing the rights with Ebeid would amount to collusion drew a dismissal from the SBS chief when, two hours later, the same questions were put to him. He said he didn’t expect Scott to “collude” with him on the bid, but he did expect the ABC to take account of its charter, which compels it to take account of what SBS is doing with regards to programming. “I’m not a lawyer, but what I read [this section of the ABC Act to mean] is that we have to make sure we’re not duplicating services, not wasting taxpayer money.”

Unlike the ABC, which had no choice but to stick taxpayers with the bill, SBS had the ability to monetise the large audiences brought by live sports through advertising, Ebeid said. “We’ve been doing that for a long time, particularly with sporting rights, which tend to be expensive.”

SBS had been airing football on free-to-air television for 34 years, Ebeid added. “We’re known as the home of football,” he said. SBS already has the rights to the European championships as well as the next two FIFA World Cups.. “I would have liked the ABC to take note of that, but they bid for it, so I’m flabbergasted.”

But Scott said no broadcaster had the exclusive right to any sport in perpetuity, “just like we have no rights to English-language drama”. Many commercial operators, Scott added, were very surprised by how little the ABC ended up paying for the bid. “The other thing to remember is football isn’t on the anti-siphoning list. So there was no guarantee it would go on free-to-air television at all.” Previous reports have alluded to the the suggestion that SBS’ bid was far too low for Foxtel, leading FFA to approach the ABC in belief the larger broadcaster might be able to stump up more cash.

Nonetheless, Ebeid’s forceful comments yesterday suggest significant heat in the issue remains. The rift between the two bodies comes as they consider greater sharing of back-end resources to help meet some of the costs of the government’s funding cut to both bodies, expected to be announced later this week. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Q&A last night that the cuts to the ABC would be in the order of 5% of its budget, if the loss of the Australia Network contract isn’t included. Yet to be confirmed are the cuts to SBS, which some sources have told Crikey will be in the vicinity of $10 million a year. SBS’ cuts are likely to be accompanied by a loosening of its rules on advertising to allow it to average out the number of minutes of advertising it airs per hour (the current rules allow it only a maximum of five minutes per hour — averaging this out would allow it to air more ads in prime time and fewer in low-rating periods).

Ebeid said yesterday that he “liked the balance” that SBS had with advertising at the moment. He declined to comment on the changed advertising rules, saying he had yet to see the proposal, but emphasised the importance of advertising to SBS’ revenues. “We could not survive without a third of our funding,” he said.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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