Free-to-view sport must be every Kiwi’s cultural right
In Australia and the UK fans get to watch their heroes for free so why do we have to pay a fortune?
The European Union passed legislation that enables nine of its major countries to screen free-to-view sport. Australia shows over 1000 free-to-view events under its antisiphoning laws. But we in New Zealand are getting sprayed by the siphon. We are paying through the nose for television sport and each year the pull on the nose ring gets more painful.
Sky’s increasingly desperate financial control of the television sports market appalls many members of the current government. Sky recently outraged many customers by slashing their Fan Pass service. But the darkest move yet is their partnership with New Zealand Rugby to live stream matches on All BlacksTV.com
Steve Tew, the NZR chief executive, said: ’’The livestream is a significant opportunity for us to use the latest streaming technology to grow the All Blacks global fanbase.’’
You can understand the commercial imperative although there is an irony in it. In order to pay enough money to keep its top players from going overseas to take up contracts underpinned by pay TV, the NZR needs its own pay TV money.
The commercial attraction is obvious, but NZR should still stay independent of any media outlet. We have already seen what Sky is capable of when they inserted a clause in the media’s Olympic contract forbidding any criticism of Sky commentators. Shamefully the NZOC initially complied with that clause, although it was later removed after the media kicked up a fuss.
Sky’s interests are not the same as the New Zealand people. They are concerned with making maximum profit for their shareholders, approximately 50 per cent of whom are overseas investors. So it is absolutely irresponsible for any of our national sporting bodies to partner with Sky.
Never mind freeview, Sky has made moves to restrict the rest of the media from publishing video clips in relation to news coverage of sports that Sky has broadcast rights to. Well over half the population, and that will be the poorer half, of course, is getting stiffed.
With New Zealand First coming into government I had hoped that live freeview of our major public interest events like All Blacks tests and the Olympics would return to our televisions. Europe has its Television Without Frontiers directive safeguarding events ‘‘of major importance for society’’. Australia’s anti-siphoning laws protect those sports that are described as ‘‘a right of cultural citizenship’’.
Winston Peters strongly supports the Australian model. His party seeks to ‘‘amend the Broadcasting Act to recognise sport as part of the New Zealand identity’’. Peters himself told me: ’’The problem is that 1.2 million homes haven’t got Sky. A serious proportion of those people are the ones taking young kids to rugby, washing their gear and they’re not getting to see it at its peak.
‘‘You find this opposition to freeto-air for all our major sports. But you don’t see that in the UK, you don’t see that in Australia, you don’t see that in a lot of major economies. So let’s dispense of the bulldust around that argument. If they can do it, so can we. It is important for us to have a cohesive society where people can see things together. Some countries regard sport as being a serious cohesive force in their economy.’’
Peters believe that the terrible levels of family violence in New Zealand, ‘‘the luckiest country on earth’’, are symptomatic of a lack of connectedness. He believes that television can be a force for bringing disconnected people together.
Labour agrees with Peters, but only to an extent. Labour and National previously defeated the bill advocating free-to-air sport. Labour’s priority is public service broadcasting and the setting up of a multimedia digital platform called RNZ+. Labour have pledged $38 million to its development.
Broadcasting minister Clare Curran said that the government is seeking to appeal to children and a diverse range of society in geographical, ethnic and physical terms. ‘‘You can take as an analogy the ABC (Australia Broadcasting Company), a truly multi media public service. That is what we are envisaging.’’
Initially Curran had her politician voice on, driving the words down narrow lanes and running over any opposition.
She had just come out of her first cabinet meeting and was understandably a little prickly. Her moves were run from the party playbook.
The minister said Labour was not prepared to ‘‘risk the viability of our sporting codes by turning everything upside down’’.
One could remark that the Aussie sporting codes are doing pretty well in their upside down world, but you suspect that Curran, who was once thrown out of parliament for wearing a Highlanders shirt, is more than sympathetic to the case for freeview sport. Financially it is just not a government priority.
Curran made the case for plurality, the term beloved of the Commerce Commission, but of course the media has never been more plural. I remarked in passing that it seemed a bit rich for the government to set up its own media station, on the other hand, and then sit back when the Commerce Commission stopped various media groups merging because of a lack of plurality.
Curran described that as absurd because the government was funding public interest media. I said that any decent media was public interest almost by definition. And that of course involves sport. But although Labour has previously blocked freeview sports legislation, I did get the impression they were not unsympathetic to its future prospects.
Curran acknowledged ‘‘the logic’’ and ‘‘validity’’ of some of the arguments that Sky’s restrictive practices were actually inhibiting a plural media. She said that Sky was ‘‘under pressure to adapt’’ and that some of their current pricing and regulatory policy was ‘unfair’’ and we are ‘‘seeing that in the numbers ditching their Sky subscription’’.
The minister would not comment on the alliance between New Zealand Rugby and Sky, but I got the impression that somewhere in a rosy future, Curran envisages RNZ+ becoming confident enough to come into the backyard and show us free sport like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation does across the water.
If any Aussie government tried to stop its citizens watching home cricket tests or the Melbourne Cup for free, there would be a revolution. The same uprising would happen in Britain, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland and Italy.
So we can but dream that one day we will able to watch free sport like so many other countries where it is seen not as a privilege, but a cultural benefit.
The challenge is for this government to stay in power long enough to ever make it happen.
It is important for us to have a cohesive society where people can see things together. Winston Peters
The next Rieko Ioane could be growing up in a household without access to Sky TV - and that is not good for New Zealand.
Winston Peters wants the ABs to be seen by everyone.