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Say goodbye to free sport on TV, say hello to paid streaming

by Kim Wingerei | May 13, 2024 | Government, Latest Posts

No more Ashes, no more AFL or NRL Grand Finals, no more Olympics. If you no longer watch TV with an aerial, seeing big sporting events for free may soon be a thing of the past. Kim Wingerei reports on new anti-siphoning proposals.

Only 61% of us still watch free-to-air TV via an antenna, according to Free TV Australia, a lobby group. The number of people watching TV via the internet using streaming services is rapidly increasing. (To wit, the millennials and younger generations who watch ‘TV’ mostly on their phones or tablets.)

Streaming and apps are frustrating for some, convenient for others, and expensive for all of us.

So far, however, the most popular sporting events have been shielded from the set-top boxes and the app paywalls. Anti-siphoning laws were introduced when pay TV first came to Australia, designed to ensure that footie Grand Finals, Olympics, the Ashes, and the other big events Australians love would continue to be available on free-to-air TV.

And as free-to-air TV is now going the way of the app – e.g. ABC’s iView, 7Plus, 9Now, 10 Play and SBS on Demand – it would be logical to extend the anti-siphoning regime to digital distribution. But the Government says otherwise.

When the new anti-siphoning legislation is presented to the Senate for approval this week, it will apply to free-to-air only, not digital.

This means that when the AFL next puts its TV rights up for auction, the Grand Final audience can be included in full. The current contract expires in 2031, by which time there won’t be many aerials left in St Kilda, Essendon, Adelaide, Perth or Western Sydney. The majority of these eyeballs will already be hooked on the digital juice, and anti-siphoning will have joined all those antennas in the scrapyard.

We’ll all be paying.

Winners and losers

The commercial TV operators are vehemently opposing the move, ganging up against Communications Minister Michelle Rowland in a meeting last week. Greg Hywood, Chair of Free TV Australia, told the AFR, “When it comes to sporting rights, the new laws must be amended to stop paid streamers buying up exclusive digital rights and putting sports behind a paywall. If not, the increasing number of Australians who watch their free sport on TV using the internet will miss out.”

This is already happening, of course, with Amazon Prime having acquired the rights to the next Cricket World Cup. And both the NRL and the AFL are investing overseas to expand their audience reach. TV rights are by far the most lucrative part of their business and streaming is where the big money is.

And that, of course, is the nub of the argument of the free-to-air broadcasters and their affiliates: protection against the big multinationals. Nine Entertainment owns Stan, the only Australian streaming service, but a minnow compared with Netflix, Disney and Amazon. The ailing Ten Network is already controlled by Paramount Pictures – presumably one of those multinationals Hywood rails against.

And then there is Kerry Stokes’ Seven West Media. The once great media giant of the West continues to go south. Its share price has halved over the past couple of years, and with a share market value of $300 million, its days of buying big-ticket sporting rights may well be over, anyway.

ABC and SBS, who were early adopters of the app distribution model, will, hopefully, continue to thrive in their respective niches, but don’t expect much prime-time sports from them either in the future.

It begs the question, with no skin in the game of free TV – analogue or digital – will Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and Foxtel once again be the winner from a government decision? To do so, they will need to be able to convert the set-top boxes that still attract a premium to app distribution without too much subscriber and revenue leakage. No easy task, but aided by a fragmented market, it would take a brave person to bet against them.

The losers, either way, are Australian sports fans.

Fake news or no news? The folly of the News Media Bargaining Code

Kim Wingerei is a businessman turned writer and commentator. He is passionate about free speech, human rights, democracy and the politics of change. Originally from Norway, Kim has lived in Australia for 30 years. Author of ‘Why Democracy is Broken – A Blueprint for Change’.

Don't pay so you can read it. Pay so everyone can!

Don't pay so you can read it.
Pay so everyone can!

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