Editorial: Sports fans adjusting their sets for pay TV

This week, viewers of Keith Quinn's Legends of the All Blacks television series saw how the game of rugby was bought by an entrepreneur of the medium, Rupert Murdoch. Behind scenes of players coming and going between the union and a competing bid from Kerry Packer, the fact was stark: when money talked, rugby walked.

The programme aired as sports fans in this country watched - or didn't watch, if they couldn't pay - two more commercial deals which will force them to change their viewing habits. The first was a decision by Sky TV to sell the "free-to-air" broadcast rights to rugby and cricket to TV3. Disappointed, TVNZ harrumphed about foreign-owned TV companies, gave notice that Sky would lose the right to rerun TVNZ news, and advertised the state broadcaster's ever-shortening sports schedule.

Strangely, public reaction was muted, though pockets of the country still cannot receive TV3 and will see no rugby unless they subscribe to Sky. Politicians, talkback radio and newspaper letters columns registered barely a mutter.

Just as the country comes to terms with subscription viewing, though, it is confronted with the next toll gate to television. This week also brought Sky's inaugural pay-per-view sports telecast. Those with the cash and a digital satellite receiver could watch a widely touted world boxing welterweight title fight.

They saw a huge global event that ended in controversy. No one else saw a punch thrown, live, delayed or otherwise, until a clip or two on the evening news. Again, nobody seemed to mind.

Some countries have laws which force sports administrators and broadcasting companies to provide at least delayed coverage to free-to-air channels. Australia insists for the moment that more than 11 sports, including every match in the French Tennis Open, be available to all. New Zealand Governments have chosen not to interfere with the ways that television finds to profitably provide sport. If the public is coming to accept the costs, perhaps it is because they can see the other side of the coin.

The money that the Murdoch organisation has put into rugby has not just professionalised the top players, making them visibly fitter, faster and more skilled. It has produced more varied and interesting competitions and, while the rules might never be perfect, the profit motive will ensure they constantly improve the spectacle. Could we be as confident of amateur administrators?

There are costs as well as benefits in controls on anything. To insist on free-to-air broadcasts is to restrict the bidding for television rights and reduce the revenue the sport might gain from its exposure. There will be that much less money to support professional players, promote new competitions and maintain public interest in the sport against competing attractions that may not suffer the same control.

But while rugby was sold to the highest bidder, the ultimate consumer of the "product" remains the man and woman on the sofa. They hold the remote. In the United States, the crown jewels of sports programming - the football Super Bowl and baseball World Series - have been saved from pay-per-view by not only the vocal resistance of fans and members of Congress. Stratospheric commercial advertising rates have played a part too. In the end, consumer power rather than heavy-handed legislation will decide what we see and how we see it.

If sports fans are adjusting their sets for pay TV, perhaps they can see the benefits professionalism has brought.

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