Labor just basically killed free sports broadcasts in Australia

Labor just basically killed free sports broadcasts in Australia

Back in 1992, long before (decent) streaming video on the internet, the Australian Government introduced laws to prevent subscription television from taking over sports broadcast rights ownership. This was before subscription TV was even really a thing in Australia, with Foxtel launching in 1995. But in a world where sports had essentially always been made available via a handful of free television stations, it made sense to protect that precedent.

Anti-siphoning laws introduced in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 gave free-to-air networks "first refusal" to sports rights. This meant that a number of iconic sporting events would need to be rejected by free-to-air networks before being allowed to screen only on pay TV. As of right now, this includes the Olympic Games, the Melbourne Cup, FIFA World Cups and Qualifications matches, key AFL and NRL games, the Australian Open. The list goes on.

Fast forward to 2024 and the Albanese government has passed the new Communications Legislation Amendment (Prominence and Anti-siphoning) Bill 2024. Though there's one big loophole in the arrangement: digital rights aren't included.

So while Nine, Ten, Seven, the ABC and SBS will still be given preferential access to TV broadcasting rights over an antenna, they might not get the same access to digital TV rights.

As the ABC reports, under these new laws this means the 1 million people who streamed the Matildas at last years FIFA Women's World Cup in Australia might have instead been forced to subscribe to a pay TV alternative if they didn't have access to antenna-powered broadcast TV.

It's a ridiculous, depressing and calculated oversight from Labor. If the original intentions of the 1992 law were to allow broad access to free sports, it shouldn't matter how people choose to access those sports. And as more people transition away from plugging one big screen into an antenna, and instead access TV from phones, tablets, computers and smart TVs, it's a deliberate removal of access.

I don't even think that the laws should only allow free-to-air networks to bid for digital rights - but if digital providers like Netflix or Kayo want to buy rights, they should be forced to provide free, ad-supported digital access to these major protected sporting events. Even if that free access is provided by a US multinational conglomerate like Paramount, which, currently at least, owns Network Ten and shares some sports with free-to-air audiences on 10.

Regionally things become even more dicey. Mildura Digital Television, which rebroadcasts 10 into Mildura, shut down on June 30, leaving Mildura residents with only 10 Play access. So any viewers in Muldura might only have access to streaming services if any sports on Network Ten become terrestrial-only. Regional television in general is becoming uneconomical as streaming and digital advertising takes a bigger slice of advertising revenue in Australia, which means more regional TV networks might close in the future. What a mess.

The biggest insult is that the anti-siphoning are already weak. There are already examples of free-to-air networks having to split rights with streaming networks, like Foxtel and Optus Sports, to make bloated rights deals financially viable. One example is Cricket Australia making a deal with Seven and Foxtel to split broadcast rights between subscription and free-to-air access, which may be contributing to a general decline in attendance and attention. If only people paying $25 a month for sports, like Kayo Sports from Foxtel charges, have access to a sport, it's only natural for that sport to split its audience.

Even more ridiculous, the new law also introduces Prominence measures, which as TV Tonight reports protects existing free-to-air networks on Smart TVs and means:

manufacturers must: install applications providing broadcasting-video-on-demand television services provided by free-to-air television broadcasters; and make those services available on the primary user interface of regulated devices.

So your new Smart TV will give prominent placement to free-to-air networks while not ensuring those networks can actually provide their terrestrial content via those apps. Sports are one of the last remaining differentiators in the declining free-to-air sector outside of news, which means Prominence is a complete contradiction under the law.

Australia's transition to streaming TV continues to have pain-points, and you'd expect more from Australia's apparent "centre-left" party to protect access to sports. But I guess that's not the case.