Broadcast news

With television rights having a growing effect on the Premier League, the broadcasting companies are battling it out for complete control

Setanta got a record audience figure for the Premier League match between Liverpool and Everton on Monday, January 19. This fact was reported in the following day’s press, although there was not a word about it in the Murdoch-owned papers. At one level this is understandable – commercial rivals can hardly be expected to acknowledge one another’s existence. But even though the match at Anfield had a direct bearing on the title race – Liverpool would have returned to the top if they’d won – there was scarcely a mention of it on Sky Sports News at any point on that Monday night.

Instead they focused almost entirely on the announcement, made to Sky ­Italia, that Kaka had turned down a move to Manchester City. This “exclusive” was padded out across several hours with the same looped footage of the player waving to Milan fans from the balcony of his flat while the Sky presenters solemnly read out a stream of emails and text messages from City fans as though they were communiqués from the UN Security Council.

This blanking of an event for which it doesn’t happen to have footage is common practice for Sky. But it is nonetheless revealing of the essentially totalitarian outlook of a broadcasting network that was built up on the back of its football coverage and has sought to make itself synonymous with the game. Football matches are of use to Sky only in so far as they help to promote the existence of the Sky network. Otherwise they don’t exist. (This is also mirrored by the way Sky ignores international football tournaments for which it has no transmission rights. During a World Cup the terrestrial channels generally take it in turns to show matches featuring the home nations but they don’t fail to even acknowledge the existence of games that they won’t be showing live.)  

This one-eyed attitude doesn’t matter in the slightest to football administrators, who are perfectly happy for the fixture list to be arranged to suit broadcasters. Indeed, the ­Premier League is set to extend its current arrangements with Sky and Setanta for another four years, with Sky having already secured four of the six packages on offer for more than £1 billion. But EU competition regulations that require the League to invite tenders for its various live packages may prompt the Disney-owned ESPN to succeed with a rival bid on the remaining packages.

When the Invitations to Tender documents for the 2009-13 period were sent out in mid-December, it was even suggested that the Premier League could form its own subscription channel should the various bids fall below expectations. But rather than joining forces, the PL clubs are more likely to splinter. Even though they would have been happy to accept the same deal again in these economically straitened times, some owners are expected to press for an end to the centralised selling of rights outside the UK, with the major clubs’ own channels beaming their matches to subscribers overseas. No doubt Liverpool and Man Utd fans in south-east Asia will be fully prepared to make a direct contribution to reducing their clubs’ massive debts – for as long as the matches they fork out to watch involve comfortable home wins. However, while the big clubs may feel they can set up their own networks in south-east Asia to sell pay-per-view rights, the difficulty they have had in stopping people broadcasting Premier League games free-to-air in Europe – one of the many issues that is apparently to be tackled by the government’s new “IP tsar” – suggests that they might not find it as lucrative as they think, especially if it becomes easier to watch the same matches for nothing.

In developing a more cut-throat attitude, broadcasters would only be mimicking what has gone on in the tabloids for years. If a star sportsman signed an exclusive column deal in the Sun or ­Mirror, it was common practice for the rival redtops to seek out negative stories about him. Were the clubs to split from collective bargaining we may yet see a similar situation developing, with one broadcaster signing up Manchester United and Chelsea and then spending time rubbishing Arsenal or Liverpool, or digging up scandals about players and coaches in order to destabilise them and protect their investment. Such internecine squabbling might even be enjoyable to witness, for a while, but will ultimately short-change viewers and is not a model on which the game as a whole can, or should, rely.

From WSC 265 March 2009