TV reform delay kicks a goal for free-to-air footy fans

Attempts by Rupert Murdoch’s pay-TV company Foxtel and the major football codes to reduce the number of matches on free-to-air television have been dealt a blow, with the federal government expected to delay legislative reform until later this year.

Australia’s anti-siphoning list, which was to expire on April 1, decides what major sports and cultural events the federal government deems should be made freely available to Australians through commercial television networks.

Media sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because plans are not announced, said Communications Minister Michelle Rowland would introduce a new list before the end of the month, but it would be largely unchanged.

The decision gives Rowland the chance to continue consultations with stakeholders before finalising a new framework that will ultimately determine how sports can be accessed and viewed in the future, given the advent of streaming services.

Anti-siphoning laws were introduced in 1992 at the beginning of the pay-TV era as a way to keep major sporting and cultural events free for the public.Credit:Getty Images

The decision temporarily thwarts attempts by Foxtel and the sporting bodies to have the laws eased, and also the efforts of commercial television networks to make the laws apply to global streaming platforms. A spokesperson for Rowland declined to comment.

Anti-siphoning laws were introduced in 1992 at the beginning of the pay-TV era as a way to keep major sporting and cultural events free for the public and to protect the free-to-air networks from losing key rights from Rupert Murdoch’s newly created company, Foxtel.

The last anti-siphoning list was created in 2010 and includes events such as the Olympics, the Melbourne Cup, as well as AFL and NRL matches, certain rugby union matches, cricket and tennis competitions. It was updated in 2017 as part of a media reform package implemented by former communications minister Mitch Fifield and extended by his successor Paul Fletcher, who wrote to former Attorney-General Michaelia Cash to defer the sunsetting of the list.

Rowland commenced a review of the legislation last year after being appointed minister, in an attempt to modernise it for a world now dominated by major streaming platforms. The review was announced among other policy priorities, including a framework that will prioritise local television apps on smart televisions, and laws that will force streaming services to spend a certain amount of money on local production.

The laws currently give networks such as Nine Entertainment Company (owner of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age), Seven and Ten, the ability to purchase the rights to sports such as the AFL and the NRL before subscription competitors. These include Foxtel, which owns streaming service Kayo Sports, Amazon Prime Video and Paramount+.

Reforming the laws is challenging because the views of the many stakeholders – major sporting bodies such as the AFL and NRL, Foxtel, global streaming services and the free-to-air television networks – do not align.

Industry body Free TV, which represents Nine, Seven West Media and Network Ten, wants the current laws to apply to streaming providers like Amazon Prime Video. (Foxtel is currently the only streaming provider prevented from putting events such as the AFL and NRL finals behind a paywall). It also wants sporting codes to sell the traditional TV and streaming rights together and is against any watering down of the list of sports and events covered.

Foxtel wants the list reduced and for the rules to be defined as pay and free (not limited to television licences). In its submission to Rowland’s review, Foxtel argues the current scheme should be replaced by a “technology-neutral” approach, which would ensure listed events are made freely available regardless of which media company acquires the rights.

Australia’s most popular sports urged the federal government last year to ease the laws, warning any further restrictions would prevent them from gaining large sums of money needed to invest in the future of their games.

The current list includes all NRL matches, AFL matches, the Olympic Games, The Melbourne Cup, the Australian Open and cricket tournaments such the Ashes. It does not include women’s sports tournaments except for the semi-final and finals of the Netball World Cup (if Australia is playing).

Rowland, who began consultations on anti-siphoning in October, wants all three processes and any legislative change to be aligned and in effect by 2023.

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