Federal Government needs to act so Australians can watch free-to-air sport

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Sarah Blake
The Nightly
3 Min Read
Seven West Media Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer James Warburton.
Seven West Media Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer James Warburton. Credit: SCOTT EHLER/Supplied

Australian TV viewers will be robbed of access to free major sporting events unless the Federal Government overrules recommendations in a Senate report into media laws released on Tuesday.

Communications Minister Michelle Rowland is currently considering changes to anti-siphoning legislation that guarantees free-to-air broadcasters the first option to bid for the rights to events such as the Olympics, the AFL and NRL and cricket tests, ahead of pay-per-view and streaming services.

The laws were designed to stop Australians from having to pay to access to major sporting events, but they haven’t kept up with new technology, which means the only rights available to free-to-air providers are for broadcast on linear TV, or to homes with antennas.

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This means that unless the laws are updated the increasing number of viewers watching free-to-air TV over the internet — which is up to 30 per cent of the audience, according to Oztam — will not be able to watch these key events.

A coalition of free-to-air broadcasters including the Seven Network, which publishes The Nightly, argued the legislation needed to be changed to bundle free broadcast and digital rights.

However, a report released Tuesday by the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee into amending the Prominence and Anti-siphoning Bill said the laws did not need to be updated.

Seven West Media Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer James Warburton said the recommendations were disappointing.

“The committee’s recommendations totally misunderstand the needs of the Australian viewing public in 2024 and beyond,” he said in a statement.

“The recommendations are doing the Australian viewing public a disservice.

“The Senate committee has released a report that does not see merit in ensuring free sport for all Australians, particularly those who don’t have an aerial.

“As the Minister considers the report, Seven strongly urges the Government to ensure that the anti-siphoning scheme includes the free digital simulcast of the broadcast stream.”

The Greens slammed the Senate recommendations, saying “strong media reform is critical for regulation of a rapidly transforming industry”.

“Yet this Bill, if passed in its current form, will be obsolete before it is even fully implemented,” they said in the report.

“The Australian Greens strongly disagree that the anti-siphoning provisions should be passed without amendment. This scheme must be amended to bundle free-to-air digital and broadcast rights together, reflecting the changing nature of Australian viewing trends and the rise of broadcasting video-on-demand(BVOD) services.”

The Senate recommendations also didn’t go far enough to ensure free-to-air apps from the main players including Seven, Ten, the ABC and SBS and Nine - had a prominent position on television home screens.

They had asked for a six month timeframe for smart TVs to give the free apps prominence and for the changes to be backdated, however the Senate report only recommended a 12 months deadline.

Mr Warburton said it was hoped that “Australians see the benefits of the Prominence Framework sooner”.

“We appreciate the report reducing the introduction of the Prominence Framework from 18 to 12 months, however, for it to be effective over the coming years it needs to apply to TV screens already in the home,” he said.

Bridget Fair, CEO of Free TV, said the recommendations were “a huge missed opportunity”.

“Without ensuring a technology neutral approach to anti-siphoning, millions of Australians stand to miss out on free sports coverage and in the longer term the whole policy will become completely irrelevant,” she said.

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