Mixed messages

After the report was made public, Roger Titford reports on the main points and the amount of people who watch Sky Sports

Using the Freedom of Information Act, the Guardian managed to get Ofcom’s report (can be found here) on the Premier League’s television deal into the public domain. In the debate over the structure of the next deal there had been much alluding to this document as a support for change. In the event the findings by the regulator for the UK communications industries look rather inconclusive – “appear to point to potential demand for greater choice” is as strong as the language gets. But the report is certainly interesting.

It may come as a surprise to learn, from Ofcom’s research, that 83 per cent of UK households do not subscribe to Sky Sports and that the average home audience for a Premiership game is about one million, or 200,000 if it’s on pay-per-view. Neither figure is growing. This should be set in the context of an average audience for BBC Match of the Day highlights of four million today. Thirty years ago, in a whole different broadcast world, MOTD used to get between 12 and 15 million viewers.

Of the 88 matches in the normal Sky package the average fan watches only a dozen and increasing the matches shown has knocked down the proportion viewed, according to audience data. Three quarters of Sky Sports subscribers never take the ppv option. When asked, viewers think they watch an average of one Premiership match a week (ie 30 a season) but the hard data show differently. It is possible to watch a top side 15 times or more live in Europe, cup games and friendlies, which may account for the viewer’s misapprehension.

The EU’s basic approach to any issue is to impose a free-market solution, regardless of the suitability of such an approach or the wishes of those involved. The viewing figures above suggest access to Premiership coverage is somewhat restricted, but the alternative solutions look neither viable nor interesting.

The two central questions are “who broadcasts?” and “how many matches?”. The first has been partly resolved by ensuring a second broadcaster gets a significant package of matches from 2007. If this means, as it might, the viewer needing a second subscription or set-top box to access these games, then that’s the free market for you, giving you a choice.

The number and proportion of matches shown live has risen from 60 (16 per cent) in 1996-97 to 138 (36 per cent). The Ofcom report claims viewers “desire a choice of matches that better suits the individual fan’s interests” – but that does not prove they want to watch more matches on more pay channels. Bluntly, fans want to watch their own team and big games. Yet if you offer more choice and suggest no penalty for that increase (eg higher subscriptions, lower attendances, more fixture disruption) then of course people say “yes please”.

But the report also contains plenty of supporting evidence that there is already enough coverage: 71 per cent of all fans, whether they have Sky or not, think there is enough or more than enough coverage; 79 per cent of Sky subscribers are happy with the quantity and type of matches on offer; and, most damning of all, 65 per cent of Sky Sports subscribers would be likely to continue subscribing at the same price even if the number of matches was halved.

The report categorises televised matches into “big games”, “own club games” and “other” (though one man’s “own club” is another man’s “other”). The “other” games are there partly for contractual reasons, so that every club gets a certain minimum coverage, and partly because the EU’s stance has driven this situation. It is not at all clear that the clubs, the league or even Sky benefit significantly from the 30 to 40 “other” games that float by on, say, mid-season Mondays with a reduced live attendance and a cost-inefficient TV audience. Fixed on the track of driving “more choice”, this report did not test “less coverage” as a possible scenario.

Its remit has been deliberately blind to other parts of this complicated jigsaw, notably Sky’s international audience, all the non-Premiership football that is also televised and, largely, to the views of season-ticket holding fans. The report can be found online (see below) and it may play a part in the settlement of the debate on live TV coverage, though perhaps not quite in the way originally intended.

From WSC 229 March 2006. What was happening this month