Battle to keep sport on TV free

Malcolm Turnbull is set to face more than political opposition to his proposed media reforms, with Rupert Murdoch accusing him of pandering to his buddies at Nine Entertainment Co. The chairman of News Corp, which owns a 50 per cent stake in Australia’s leading pay TV provider, Foxtel, Mr Murdoch took to Twitter yesterday to proclaim: Aust! Turnbull’s plans to scrap certain rules suit buddies at Nine. Can’t oppose dumping all regs but not this. Nice to see how MT plays.”

At the centre of Mr Murdoch’s ire is the omission of sporting rights from Mr Turnbull’s proposed media changes, which will mean that sporting events can continue to be broadcast free-to-air. In total, 1300 sporting events, including AFL, Olympic Games, Wimbledon and the US Masters Golf have been ring-fenced and excluded from the proposed reforms, the result being that these events will be available for free-to-air broadcasting. Mr Turnbull said that this move would ensure a “fair go” for all Australians, giving them a chance to watch major sporting events without needing a pay-tv subscription.

“The policy question for government is simply whether we want to continue with a free-to-air television system where ordinary Australians, who may not be able to afford a Foxtel subscription, can nonetheless watch their favourite sport on free-to-air TV?” Mr Turnbull said in an interview with Fairfax Media.

“This is a very Australian arrangement. In many countries, pay TV has been able to secure the rights to major sporting codes thus requiring sports fans to pay for a subscription,” Mr Turnbull added.

News Corp Australia CEO Julian Clarke and Foxtel CEO Richard Freudenstein claim that Foxtel customers would have to pay more to watch such events, as Foxtel would need to pay a fee to free-to-air channels to screen such events. Mr Turnbull said that the exclusion of such events would not have any real bearing on the proposed reforms: “It would only mean that pay TV companies would have to seek permission from the free-to-air networks in order to rebroadcast their signal, just as, in fact, a free-to-air broadcaster would need to seek permission from Foxtel to rebroadcast one of its channels,” said Mr Turnbull.

The basis of the proposal is an overhaul of cross-media ownership rules, implemented in the Keating-era, which would enable mergers between television, radio and newspaper corporations. The rules would also see the scrapping of the 75 per cent rule, which currently means that free-to-air companies can only broadcast to 75 per cent of the Australian population. Removal of this rule could mean that regional shows are cancelled in favour of national productions.

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Opinion: Choice is what’s important

Australians should be able to watch sport free on television, especially Australian sport, so if Mr Turnbull is indeed looking after his ‘buddies’ at Channel Nine, is this such a bad thing?

For years Foxtel has essentially had close to a monopoly on pay-television in Australia and this has resulted in many sporting events, such as AFL, the Grand Prix, A-league soccer and even the current ICC Cricket World Cup being screened on premium pay-tv channels, often under licence from free-to-air channels. And it is these agreements, which ensure that Australians can still switch on their televisions and watch the sports that they love. Can you imagine not being able to see the AFL or NRL Grand Final? Or how about missing out on the joy of seeing Australia beat England at cricket? Whatever sport you enjoy, it doesn’t seem fair that it should come at a cost to the television viewer.

For those who can afford pay-tv, the choice is there for them to decide whether or not to watch such events on Foxtel, or whether to simply stick with the traditional free-to-air channels. But for those for whom the $50 per month, plus $150 set up fee is just a bit too rich, having sport available on a free-to-air basis is the only way they get to see the games they love.

The influx to Australia of television streaming networks, such as Netflix and Stan, means that Australians will have the option to pay for more premium television shows. It also means that the near-monopoly Foxtel has built here is under threat. Perhaps this, rather than simply giving Australians access to sport free on television, is what is getting under Mr Murdoch’s skin so much.

Whether Mr Turnbull is protecting sporting rights to benefit his friends in high places, or he is genuinely of the opinion that every Australian deserves the right to watch sport free on television, Mr Murdoch should simply butt out.

Should sport on television be free to all Australians? Are the media reforms a move in the right direction for Australians? Or will relaxing the cross-media ownership rules mean that we all have to pay in the long run?


Written by Debbie McTaggart

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