Sky Television today assured viewers that free-to-air coverage will be available if the company takes over as rights holder from TVNZ.

Sky TV spokesman Tony O'Brien said he could not discuss a proposal from TVNZ who have sought to transfer their rights to the Commonwealth Games in India to Sky.

"If Sky is the successful bidder, as with the 2010 and 2012 Olympic Games, New Zealand viewers will be guaranteed comprehensive free-to-air coverage," he said in a statement.

Mr O'Brien said it is still just a proposal but given that Sky has guaranteed 12 hours a day of free coverage for the Vancouver Winter Olympics and 22 hours a day for 2012 Summer Games, there will be extensive coverage on their free-to-air channel Prime.

"We are currently carrying out a process of due diligence on the [Commonwealth Games] proposal," Mr O'Brien said.

TVNZ spokeswoman Megan Richards told NZPA it had been looking to offload broadcast rights after it was estimated the state broadcaster faced a loss of $5 million on the Games.

She said in previous years it was possible to absorb this loss in the interest of keeping such international events on free-to-air channels.

"In this economic climate that's not something that's manageable for us. We have no reserves and no buffer any more.

"So the plan B was to put that proposal to Sky."

Any deal would require the approval of the Commonwealth Games Committee in India which was expected to be sought in the next few weeks.

Ms Richards said the move did not signal an end to TVNZ bidding on international events and it would still be pursuing the rights to the Rugby World Cup in 2011 - although its bid would reflect "our financial position".

She said it was likely TVNZ would look to shared coverage deals in the future to lower costs.

Progressive Party leader Jim Anderton said today New Zealand was one of the only countries in the world not to have legislation protecting free-to-air viewing of popular sporting events.

Britain, Canada, Australia and other European countries ensured free-to air-viewing, but New Zealand had "left the stable door open and the horse has well and truly bolted".

Governments past and present had put the issue in the "too hard basket" and elderly and low-income people were missing out, he said.

Many sportspeople were mentors and idols for young children, he said.

New Zealand could bring in a framework for free-to-air viewing of important events by making exceptions as contracts came-up.

Each time a sports event was shown on pay TV it was "another nail in the coffin".

A spokeswoman for Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman said he would not comment at this stage.

The New Zealand for the New Zealand Olympic Committee, which also looks after the Commonwealth Games team, said today broadcasting arrangements were made with the international organisation, in this case the Commonwealth Games Federation.

However, the original broadcaster would have signed up to certain responsibilities and those would still hold for any new broadcaster, communications manager Ashley Abbott said.

She said the committee, which spends about $20 million every four years sending teams to games, would still expect a wide percentage of the population to be able to view the games.

Free to air sport in the UK is covered by a voluntary code that is overseen by the Central Council of Physical Recreation.

The sports include tennis, cricket, golf, football (including the Premier League), rugby league and athletics.

In Australia, there is the Federal "Anti-siphoning list" which protects major sporting events from being controlled by pay television.

The list includes the Olympic Games, the Commonwealth Games, Australian rules, rugby league, rugby union and cricket.

Free to air broadcasters get given first option to buy the rights but if the rights have not been bought within two months of the event running, then subscriber channels are able to bid.

- NZPA and NZHERALD STAFF