We can’t watch cricket on free-to-air TV, but the reg­u­la­tor doesn’t seem in­ter­ested

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Rod­ney Tif­fen

Seven in 10 Aus­tralian house­holds could not watch Sun­day’s one day in­ter­na­tional cricket match be­tween Aus­tralia and South Africa. Only about three in 10 house­holds sub­scribe to the pay TV ser­vice Fox­tel, which had ex­clu­sive broad­cast­ing rights.

It is the first time that a one day in­ter­na­tional in­volv­ing Aus­tralia on Aus­tralian soil has not been avail­able on free-to-air TV.

The lack of avail­abil­ity is the re­sult of a six-year deal signed last April when Cricket Aus­tralia gave the TV rights to the Seven net­work and Fox­tel. They of­fered more money than a ri­val bid by the Nine and Ten net­works, which would have kept all Aus­tralian men’s in­ter­na­tional matches avail­able on freeto-air TV.

It was re­ported that Seven would pay $75m and Fox­tel $100m. In the deal, Fox­tel will simul­cast all Tests with Seven, and have ex­clu­sive rights to in­ter­na­tional one day and 20-over matches plus some Big Bash matches, and ex­clu­sive dig­i­tal rights.

In bid­ding for sport­ing rights, there is a dif­fer­ent fi­nan­cial cal­cu­lus for a pay TV op­er­a­tor and a free-to-air broad­caster. The free-to-air sta­tion has to de­cide how many ex­tra view­ers and hence ad­ver­tis­ing the event will bring, and on this alone it must re­coup its in­vest­ment. The pay TV op­er­a­tor sees gain­ing the rights as part of a strat­egy to se­cure more sub­scrip­tions. So quite com­monly it is will­ing to out­bid the free-to-air net­works in or­der to build its sub­scrip­tion base.

For the sport­ing bod­ies, this is a Faus­tian bar­gain – more im­me­di­ate in­come but fewer view­ers; and choos­ing to make their prod­uct un­avail­able to many, in­deed most, of their ex­ist­ing fans.

And so it proved on Sun­day. Fox­tel av­er­aged 205,000 view­ers – 277,000 in the first ses­sion down to 133,000 in the se­cond ses­sion as it was clear Aus­tralia

was on the road to a mas­sive de­feat. In con­trast the first ODIs in re­cent se­ries had around 1 mil­lion view­ers. It is likely this trend will con­tinue and the au­di­ences for these matches will be around one-quar­ter to one-fifth what they used to be on free to air.

So Cricket Aus­tralia has traded more money for fewer view­ers; shown it­self more in­ter­ested in short-term profit than grow­ing (or even just main­tain­ing) the pop­u­lar­ity of the game.

Dis­en­fran­chised cricket view­ers may won­der how this hap­pened. Since pay TV was in­tro­duced, suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have sup­ported anti-si­phon­ing laws to en­sure most Aus­tralians still had ac­cess to ma­jor sport­ing events on free-to-air TV.

Fox­tel has done well from Mitch Fi­field’s ten­ure as com­mu­ni­ca­tions min­is­ter. With­out call­ing for ten­ders he gave a grant of $30m to Fox­tel to pro­mote women’s sport. Last year he sub­stan­tially re­duced the num­ber of sport­ing events cov­ered by the anti-si­phon­ing rules.

How­ever the cricket matches now taken off free-to-air TV were still in­cluded, and so prima fa­cie it seemed that the Cricket Aus­tralia-Seven-Fox­tel deal broke the anti-si­phon­ing reg­u­la­tions. Fi­field ob­fus­cated. He said – cor­rectly but ir­rel­e­vantly – that free-toair TV net­works did not have to pur­chase events, al­though in this case all three com­mer­cial sta­tions had bid. He and the head of the Seven net­work, Tim Worner, also said that once a net­work had bought rights, they could do as they wished with them, for ex­am­ple on­sell them to Fox­tel.

This is a rewrit­ing of what had al­ways been un­der­stood. Un­der the Fi­field doc­trine, when­ever a free-to-air net­work and Fox­tel co­op­er­ate, events can sim­ply be taken off free-to-air TV, and any other sense of the pub­lic in­ter­est is eclipsed by their com­mer­cial con­ve­nience.

This change of at­ti­tude comes at a sen­si­tive mo­ment. Not only Fox­tel, but stream­ing ser­vices are in­creas­ingly seek­ing sport­ing deals to make their prod­uct more at­trac­tive to po­ten­tial sub­scribers.

As it seemed to me (and to many oth­ers) that the new agree­ment broke the anti-si­phon­ing laws I asked the Aus­tralian Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Me­dia Author­ity (ACMA) to make a rul­ing. After some weeks, it emailed me that the ACMA has “con­cluded that it would not be in the pub­lic in­ter­est to pro­ceed with an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of your com­plaint”. It is my un­der­stand­ing that ACMA has ev­ery right to do this. In the past it had to pro­ceed un­less a com­plaint was deemed vex­a­tious or triv­ial. Now it has the dis­cre­tion not to. It does not have to give rea­sons and there is no av­enue of ap­peal against its de­ci­sion.

Nev­er­the­less we live in a very strange world when a reg­u­la­tor de­cides that it is not in the pub­lic in­ter­est to ad­ju­di­cate whether or not a law has been bro­ken.

Pho­to­graph: Gary Day/ Frozen in Mo­tion/REX/Shut­ter­stock

‘Fox­tel av­er­aged 205,000 view­ers – 277,000 in the first ses­sion down to 133,000 in the se­condses­sion as it was clear Aus­tralia was on the road to a mas­sive de­feat.’

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