Media: Sky should have a shot at big games: David Elstein cries 'foul' at attempts to stop sports bodies selling their rights to pay TV

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The Independent Online
In a free society, there must be a compelling reason why the proprietor of a legitimate product, such as a major sporting event, should not be entitled to sell that product where he wishes.

So said the minister steering the 1990 Broadcasting Bill through its committee stage during the debate over 'listed events' - a notion tacked on to the very first Television Act in 1954 to prevent key sporting occasions moving from the BBC to an ITV which then had only a limited transmission area.

The 'listed events' concept has been through many versions, with the exclusion being switched from ITV to cable and satellite. The most recent formula, in 1990, reduced the list to eight events: the FA Cup final, Olympic Games, World Cup finals, Wimbledon finals, the Derby, Grand National, England Test matches and Scottish FA Cup final. It also limited the exclusions to broadcasters charging on a pay-per-view basis - of which at the moment there are none.

Quite why 'the proprietor of a legitimate product' - such as the Test and County Cricket Board - should not 'in a free society' sell television rights to a pay-per-view channel is not clear. After all, the TCCB is allowed to charge an entrance fee to the ground; why not for pictures from the ground?

Last week, the House of Commons National Heritage Committee recommended that channels charging any kind of subscription, not only pay-per-view, should be barred from bidding for the listed events. The target of this manoeuvre is clearly Sky Sports.

But what is so objectionable about a subscription? Is pounds 3 a week a sufficiently 'compelling reason' for Parliament to intervene? To see the Wimbledon finals on cable would involve a small connection charge and a single monthly subscription: is that an intolerable burden for the equivalent of Centre Court seats? As for a dish, the current cost, including installation, is less than for a video recorder.

The argument has been that viewers of free television would be deprived if a listed event switched to satellite. But there is a limit to how much sport the four terrestrial channels can absorb, or how much they are willing to spend on sport as opposed to drama, current affairs and so on. If they can afford to pay the market price, but decline to do so, why should 'viewer deprivation' engineered by terrestrial channel preferences be seen as more important than the interests of sporting bodies, such as the TCCB, who wish to gain the best price for coverage of their events?

Perhaps the concern is that satellite and cable currently only reach 20 per cent of the population. Would the ban be lifted, as the doyen of sports broadcasters, Sir Paul Fox, suggested last week, when that figure reached 50 per cent? As it happens, virtually all the population is in reach, if it so chooses, of cable or satellite.

The TCCB has made clear that it wishes to be 'delisted' so as not to be left at the mercy of the BBC, especially as the BBC fails to offer ball-by-ball coverage of domestic Test matches when it buys exclusive rights. Most of the last afternoon of the hard-fought Lord's Test was lost to cricket fans because the BBC preferred to cover a first-round match at Wimbledon.

The National Heritage committee's recommendation, apparently, does not even extend to barring all satellite channels from bidding for the listed events, just those funded by subscription, rather than advertising. So Eurosport can bid, even if Sky Sports cannot.

In his Guardian column last week, David Mellor applauded the committee's recommendations and warned Sky against bidding for all sports events. Sky covers some 60 sports: how many listed events has it bid for since it was legally allowed to in 1990? None.

So what is all the fuss about? BBC, ITV and Channel 4, with respective incomes of pounds 1.5bn, pounds 1.3bn and pounds 300m, are keen to disadvantage Sky Sports, with a budget of pounds 60m. They want the price of certain sports to be held down, so that they can bid against each other for unlisted events, such as rugby union or Cheltenham.

The minister in the 1990 debate had a phrase for those who would 'deny people the right to sell a legitimate product'. He called it 'empty populism'. That minister, of course, was David Mellor. Four years in politics is a long time.

The writer is head of programming at BSkyB.

(Photograph omitted)