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?

Sunday Star-Times - - Sport -

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

PHOTOSPORT

The next Rieko Ioane could be grow­ing up in a house­hold with­out ac­cess to Sky TV - and that is not good for New Zealand.

ROBERT KITCHIN/STUFF

Win­ston Peters wants the ABs to be seen by ev­ery­one.

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