Saturday night’s French Open Women’s Final featuring Australia’s Samantha Stosur was a late addition to Nine’s schedule but a bit of programming genius. The broadcast averaged 1.1 million viewers nationally (not bad for a 10:45pm start time and around 1am finish) for the network. Comparatively over at Fox Sports, their coverage of the final (Nine was using the same feed) was watched by 169,000. Fox Sports also broadcast the match in 3D.
Just weeks out from Senator Conroy’s long awaited response to the Anti-siphoning review, Nine’s broadcast has again brought to the forefront the continued relevance of the Anti-siphoning laws in today’s television environment. The huge viewer interest on Nine on Saturday night is a reminder of the importance sport plays in the national psyche.
What are the Anti-siphoning laws?
The Anti-siphoning laws were introduced to ensure large corporations like News Corporation and Telstra (co-owners of Foxtel) when they entered the pay-TV market with their enormous buying were prevented from siphoning off historically Free-to-air content, particularly large sporting event coverage, thus restricting the audience to paying customers.
The 1.1 million viewers who watched Stosur go down to Italy’s Francesca Schiavone on Nine, were able to watch the broadcast because of the Anti-siphoning legislation.
The laws provide free-to-air networks, including the ABC and SBS to acquire the rights to the events on the Anti-siphoning list before a pay-TV broadcaster can bid for the rights. The Nine Network had purchased the broadcast rights to all overseas grand slam tournaments (they are all listed in various forms on the current Anti-siphoning list) and on-sold the finds rounds of the French and US Open as well as some Wimbledon matches to Fox Sports. As reported in the Australia’s Media section the agreement with Fox Sports allows Nine to take back popular matches.
Without the Anti-siphoning list it is likely that Nine would not hold the rights (as the commercial value in broadcasting overseas sports without Australians participating has limited appeal to advertisers and viewers) meaning viewers would have been forced to pay to watch Stosur try and become the first Australian female win a Grand Slam tennis tournament since the 1970s.
According to reports, Senator Conroy in his Anti-siphoning review is expected to retain the main sports on the list such as NRL, AFL, Olympics, Australian Open but also create a B list of events which may be shown free-to-air’s digital-only channels.
Saturday’s broadcast by Nine will put fear into pay-TV’s stakeholders around the country, ahead of Senator Conroy’s announcement to any changes to the anti-siphoning regime. This is because for pay-TV providers like Foxtel and Austar, sport is the largest subscription driver. Last week ¬ 19 out of the top 20 programs on pay-TV were sport.¬ The high ratings, late on a Saturday night for Nine (usually the lowest rating night of the week) may provide Senator Conroy with impetus to reconsider any proposed amendments.
What needs to be done?
The Government in order to ensure that sporting events of national interest reach the widest possible audience should remove the restriction that prevents FTA networks from broadcasting listed events on their HD multichannel and their SD multichannels.
This would have a two-fold effect. Firstly, it would ensure that FTA networks provide coverage of events on a national basis such as Rugby Union internationals that currently do not get primetime coverage in Southern Markets. In much the same way the Nine Network has previously used its HD channel to show the AFL Footy Show in Queensland whilst the NRL Footy Show was on its main channel. Secondly, sports programming is a proven method for the introduction of television services and could be used as a policy tool to attract more viewers to digital TV. The success of OneHD is testament to this, especially ahead of the 2013 analogue switch-off.
Free-to-air and pay-TV can co-exist with the continued operation of the Anti-siphoning laws with a few minor tweaks. But to ensure the list continues to be relevant and effective the laws must allow listed events to be shown on FTA broadcaster’s multichannels and allow FTA networks the chance to bid first on top-class sport. This would ensure that if an Aussie is performing strongly on the international stage, everyone will have the opportunity to see their progress to glory!