JAMES WARBURTON: Anti-siphoning legislation must change to protect free viewing of major sporting events

James Warburton
The Nightly
4 Min Read
JAMES WARBURTON: The right to watch major sporting events for free has long been protected by law. That could soon change unless legislation keeps pace with technology
JAMES WARBURTON: The right to watch major sporting events for free has long been protected by law. That could soon change unless legislation keeps pace with technology Credit: The Nightly/The Nightly

In theory, the current media reform legislation before Federal Parliament will modernise Australians’ access to free-to-air TV services.

In practice, in its current form, it will force Australians to pay for sport and streaming services that they have traditionally enjoyed for free.

Taking away this cornerstone of Australian culture and imposing extra costs on the average Aussie sports fan begs the question: is the cost-of-living crisis really an issue for the Albanese Government?

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A quick recap of where things are at will explain what I mean.

There is a currently a Bill before Parliament called the Communications Legislation Amendment (Prominence and Anti-siphoning) Bill 2023 which has the potential to modernise how we all access free TV services in the form of news, entertainment and the iconic sporting events we know, trust and love.

The Bill has two important elements.

First, it intends to make free-to-air services easily discoverable in an internet world on connected TVs, an issue known as “prominence”.

Secondly, it aims to ensure major sporting events are free to all Australians and not put behind a pay wall of a subscription or streaming service.

But the Bill has some fundamental flaws which, if passed, will severely impact how Australians find and watch free TV services.

The free-to-air industry has been fiercely advocating to ensure Australians can stream free sport on connected televisions, but its arguments are falling on deaf ears.

The Senate Committee has released its recommendations.

The result? The draft Bill seems to give rich, avaricious global streaming giants the chance to swoop in and buy the digital rights to Australian sporting events.

Those with deep pockets will ultimately impact the back pockets of Aussie sports fans.

Seven West Media Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, James Warburton.jpg
James Warburton. Credit: TheWest

For decades, the anti-siphoning list has ensured that free-to-air TV broadcasters are given the first chance to purchase the broadcast rights to certain sporting events. But this does not extend to free digital streaming rights.

The Government has left these digital rights wide open for the taking by not requiring them to be delivered for free.

This means people without antennas and a subscription could miss out on these protections and potentially lose the ability to watch free sport in what will be a digital-dominant future.

Some people are arguing that if free TV broadcasters get the free digital rights to sporting events through legislation, we will be given a competitive advantage.

That might be true if it was an open and free market, which it is not.

Free TV is legislated to provide its services for free, which means we can only raise revenue through advertising to fund the ballooning cost of sports rights.

And let’s not forget it is the Australian people who are tipping in well over $200 million for the new stadium in Tasmania.

Sporting bodies themselves have a social responsibility to reach as many people as possible for free, not just to chase the biggest cheque.

With the proposed Bill, the Government has missed an opportunity to not only modernise the anti-siphoning scheme, but also to relieve some of the pressures caused by the cost-of-living crisis.

The prominence part of the Bill aims to ensure that free TV services are easily and prominently found among the sea of paid services currently crowding connected TV screens.

It is in the interests of the big tech companies that control the operating systems in our TV sets to push consumers to paid content and to subscription apps that pay them to be prominent.

That’s why the Government aims to legislate that free-to-air services are prominent on connected TVs.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Josh Daicos of the Magpies and Nick Daicos of the Magpies celebrates winning the premiership during the 2023 AFL Grand Final match between Collingwood Magpies and Brisbane Lions at Melbourne Cricket Ground, on September 30, 2023, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images via AFL Photos)
The AFL grand final is one of the sporting events protected by anti-siphoning legislation. Credit: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Given the current financial climate, you’d think the Government would see merit in making prominence happen quickly and to apply it to as many connected TVs as possible. However, the problem with the current Bill is that Australians will have to wait years for it to come into effect.

That problem could be easily fixed by requiring all televisions, whether they are sitting on a wall at home or sitting in a box at a retail store, to comply within six months.

That can be achieved through a simple software update, similar to what happens with mobile phone updates.

Why should Australians care about their free TV services?

Sure, some people love to binge on a seven-part murder mystery series in one day, but when we want to know what is happening in our towns or cities, when there is an emergency, when we want to spend time with a local drama series they have loved for years, or we want to cheer on our favourite sporting teams and athletes, that’s when we turn to free to air.

Let’s face it, Netflix is not breaking to a news update anytime soon.

There is no public outrage about all this at the moment, mainly because no one knows what anti-siphoning or prominence really means.

But you can bet that the moment an Amazon comes in and acquires the digital rights to your favourite sport and you have pay a monthly subscription fee to watch it, or you can’t find a free TV service on your connected TV, Australians will certainly care then.

The Albanese Government has one chance to get this right and to alleviate some of the cost-of-living pressures, so let’s do it now before free sport and free TV services are lost to most Australians in a digital world.

James Warburton is the managing director and chief executive officer of Seven West Media, publisher of The Nightly.

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