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End Scrap Over Rugby World Cup Broadcast Rights - Bring Sport Back To Free To Air!

Chris Ford
Chris Ford

The Maori Television bid to provide free to air coverage of Rugby World Cup 2011 games was a very noble bid and one that they should be congratulated and not pilloried for. However, to end all the angst and confusion surrounding this issue, all sporting events of national significance should be brought back to free-to-air television and this should be done through legislative intervention if necessary.

Today (Wednesday), the confusion and u-turns continued as Prime Minister John Key reportedly has directed that Maori Television lead the bid for the free-to-air broadcast rights for All Blacks games and other significant matches in 2011. This comes as a joint consortium comprised of both Television New Zealand and TV3 was preparing its own counter-bid and was preparing to ask for Government funding in order to do this.

Yes, it all looks messy and rather racist in that Maori Television, which did go to the Minister of Maori Affairs and ask for discretionary funding to be obtained through Te Puni Kokiri (TPK-Ministry of Maori Development), has been snubbed for simply putting its hand up. One of the nastier undertones of this fight is the apparent unwillingness of many Pakeha New Zealanders to see even part of the match commentaries made in Te Reo Maori. For this reason, TVNZ and TV3 were prepared to counter-bid in order to play on this sentiment.

While it is true that Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples did not go through due process in informing the Prime Minister or Cabinet of his intentions, the treatment that has been meted out to Maori Television on this occassion has been appalling as they are a true example of what a good public broadcaster should be. They run programmes in both English and Maori and their local programming content stands at well over 90%, which is far better than that of their other free-to-air rivals. The station is fully publicly funded through Te Puni Kokiri and carries minimal advertising as a result. Its programming appeals to both Maori and Pakeha New Zealanders and some of their movie and documentary offerings would not see the light of day on other channels due to their perceived unprofitability.

Casting all this aside though, the real reason as to why taxpayers money has been put up is due, indirectly, to one person - Rupert Murdoch.

Let me explain.

The Murdoch News Corporation empire, through their desire to enter into the growing sports broadcasting market during the 1990s, effectively forced the professionalisation of amateur codes like rugby, cricket and soccer, etc. Therefore, Murdoch's empire was indirectly responsible for creating contests like rugby's Super 14 in order to fit around the demands of their pay TV sporting channels. Both domestic and international sporting bodies (like the International Rugby Board, the International Cricket Board and other sporting code peak bodies) also saw that there was money to be made from onselling broadcasting rights to the highest bidder. And in broadcasting terms, Rupert Murdoch and other multinational corporate players (like the late Kerry Packer) were only too happy to pay for the broadcasting rights for a comparative song in order to increase their market share and, hence, profits.

Before the era of professionalisation (which effectively marked the privatisation of high level sport and its removal from the public domain), all sports mad people the world over were able to enjoy watching their favourite sports on free-to-air television. Who can remember getting up at all hours of the morning to watch the All Blacks play the likes of the England or France while on their Northern Hemisphere tours? Who can remember switching onto watch a one day cricket international between New Zealand and Australia during a warm summer's night? Now, if you can't afford digital pay television, then you are effectively locked out from seeing major sporting events unless you can find some money to go down to the nearest pub or club which subscribes to a sporting channel or, if a major event is on nearby, fork out umpteen dollars to go and sit in a stadium.

This has created a digital divide between the haves and have nots of society in that middle class and bourgeois New Zealanders can afford pay TV while workers and beneficiaries (in the main) are locked out from viewing sporting events on free-to-air. Effectively, this denies nearly 40%-50% of New Zealanders a virtual box seat at major sporting events.

That's why the Government should look at bringing major sporting events back to free-to-air television. This would include the Olympic and Commonwealth Games (already flogged off by TVNZ onto Prime TV and Sky Sport), the rugby, cricket and soccer world cup competitions and any other competition deemed to be of national importance. If the Government wants to look for any examples of this, then there is legislation in countries such as Australia, Britain and Canada which reserves major sporting events for free-to-air television. 

Furthermore, we should consider effectively bringing back all sport onto free-to-air television through the nationalisation of digital television providers such as Sky Television. Through this mechanism, the Sky and Freeview platforms should be merged and digital decoders supplied at a minimal price (or a requirement inserted into legislation that all new televisions be equipped with digital reception capability) to viewers. After the switch over from analogue to digital early in the next decade, no New Zealander should then have to pay to receive any sport or other speciality channel offered by either of the current providers.

Only if this scenario were to pass would we then avoid the need to have onerous amounts of taxpayer dollars committed to securing sports coverage which should be ours to view as of right. In the meantime, if it takes taxpayer money to secure free-to-air broadcasting rights, then I'm happy for that to happen and I don't care who wins the bidding war.

But all this need never have happened in the first place if it were not for Rupert Murdoch. In my belief, all sports fans should curse his name whenever free to air rights are denied. 

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