MEDIA: MAGGIE BROWN; There is no turning back the sporting TV clock

The debate about the public’s right to watch great sporting events without having to pay through the nose to BSkyB is one of the most cynical I have witnessed for some time.

The debate about the public’s right to watch great sporting events

without having to pay through the nose to BSkyB is one of the most

cynical I have witnessed for some time.



What is really happening is that the canny BBC has taken advantage of

the Government’s wafer-thin majority and whipped up a populist storm to

protect the eight ‘listed events’. With the backing of Labour and some

Tory MPs led by David Mellor, the lobbyists may well succeed in forcing

an amendment into the Broadcasting Bill now going through Parliament.

But a small victory on this front will not stop the logic of the

marketplace or turn back the clock to a time when 24-hour pay sports

channels did not exist, or pay-per-view not loom. And the intellectual

case such a victory would rest upon is flimsy in the extreme.



The list of sports events is rooted in the 1950s, when television was in

its infancy, and is as out of date as the Morris Minor. One of the eight

‘gems’ - the Boat Race - can hardly be termed a national event any more;

and there are no top golfing or snooker events on it.



This approach also assumes that major sporting events bind the nation

together and that this is a good thing. To many women this sounds like a

male-manufactured myth.



But the real issue is whether Parliament and the law should be dragged

into the rapidly changing market for sporting rights on the rocky

pretext of the public interest? Should the market be rigged to give

terrestrial broadcasters special privileges in perpetuity at the expense

of the holders of sports rights?



And why should we assume that top sporting events should be freely

available, when we pay to view great British-produced films and expect

entertainers and talent to migrate to the channel which offers them the

best deal. If Pavarotti decided to perform in Hyde Park again, should we

petition our MPs to force his agents to negotiate with the BBC this

time, rather than Sky?



The best argument in defence of the public interest is that some of

these sports, such as football, belong in a wider sense to the public:

they are games nurtured over the years by school teams and loyal

supporters.



The BBC is opening up a second attack, by arguing that the sports bodies

should be forced in future to ‘unbundle’ sports rights into component

parts, pay television, free-to-air recorded highlights etc, spreading

coverage outwards. What it objects to is the way BSkyB can buy

‘monopoly’ rights and then decide whether or not to whistle up a junior

dancing partner (the BBC or ITV) for secondary rights.



There is merit to a limited degree of unbundling. It would temper

BSkyB’s power, without destroying the value of exclusive live coverage,

and by allowing access to those without pay television, pander to our

ever-present sense of fair play. Surely a set of voluntary ground rules

could be devised?



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