The Courier-Mail

Free-to-air rules unfair play to sports viewers

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AUSTRALIA’S free-to-air television networks have been taking sports fans for mugs for many years now.

Under “anti-siphoning” laws that date back to the pre-internet era of the early 1990s, they are given first and exclusive chop at major sporting drawcards such as the National Rugby League, the AFL, soccer and one-off events such as the Olympic Games.

What the networks actually do with these broadcast rights though is another matter altogether, as longsuffer­ing fans of the NRL would be able to attest.

As it stands two games out of eight each week are broadcast live on free-toair television. Others are delayed or ignored altogether on the main network channel.

We are left with a pre-Copernican model of centralise­d control that still fails to take into account not only the huge technologi­cal shift that has occurred in the past 20 years, but also what sports fans actually want and deserve: access to their sports of choice live and on demand – something that despite the multi-channel and digital options now part of the free-to-air reality is pretty hard to find.

With the latest $950 million deal struck between the NRL and its longstandi­ng host broadcaste­r league fans can at least take some small succour from the fact that four of the eight games will now be broadcast live on free-to-air.

Queensland footy fans can also look forward to the dubious joy of yet another few years of Channel 9’s Phil ‘‘Gus” Gould and his argumentat­ive and one-eyed commentary, and broadcasts constantly interrupte­d by ad breaks at crucial moments of play.

There are some positives to take from the NRL deal when it comes to easing the strain on players by shortening the club season to 25 games, and pushing the representa­tive fixtures out past the grand final.

The decision to shift at least one State of Origin game to a Sunday will cause controvers­y, but so long as the sanctity of this sporting showcase is preserved and not sold off to the highest bidder when it comes to hosting matches which have little to do with them (that would be you, Melbourne) we should keep an open mind and see how the new format works before passing judgment.

Likewise the deal sees the NRL regain control of match scheduling from broadcaste­rs, which is most welcome, and restores the focus on the logistics of the game and the players rather than what agenda might milk the best television ratings.

What would really make a big difference to both the health of all our major sporting codes and the lives of supporters though is bringing the Broadcasti­ng Services Act into the 21st century so that it properly reflects the multi-platform reality of the modern world.

As it stands now the players, sporting bodies, fans and broadcaste­rs alike are dealing with an anachronis­m.

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