Review confirms Ashes as free-to-air choice

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The Independent Online

The Ashes are one step closer to returning to free-to-air television after an independent review recommended the iconic series be returned to the list of British sport's 'Crown Jewels'.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport this morning published the recommendations of the inquiry headed by David Davies, the former executive director of the Football Association.

The Ashes was last broadcast free-to-air in 2005 and, with Sky contracted to screen the 2013 series, a 2016 return looks most likely.

Also recommended for a return to the list are all of England's home and away qualification matches for the football World Cup and European Championships.

Also on the new 'A' list of events are The Open golf championship, the entire Wimbledon tournament and the Rugby World Cup.

Three events have been offered up for delisting, with the Epsom Derby, the Rugby League Challenge Cup final and the Winter Olympics those now vulnerable.

The key factor in recommending an event for listing was that it should have a special national resonance and not simply be of significance to those who follow the sport concerned.

Davies said: "The panel's task was to look beyond the interests of any one sport, and assess the events that really matter to society in the modern age.

"I believe our report is challenging for the sports governing bodies, the broadcasters and the Government. But unashamedly it puts the viewing public first."

The panel believe there should be a single list of protected live events, unlike the current two-tier arrangement which also safeguards free-to-air screening of highlights.

It is felt protected coverage of highlights is now "insufficient and out of step in a multi-channel, digital and online world".

In coming to their conclusions, the panel have quoted research in which 82% of respondents believed they had an entitlement to watch sporting events events on free-to-air television because they had paid a licence fee. It added that 76% of those asked expected to be able to watch major events free.

Pay TV broadcasters BSkyB and ESPN were praised in the report for their quality of coverage and urged to consider broadcasting some events free in the future.

The traditional terrestrial broadcasters of the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five are the only outlets currently meeting the 'qualifying' criteria set down by the panel to screen listed events.

To qualify broadcasters must reach 95% of the population at no extra cost on top of the licence fee.

After the digital switchover is completed in 2012 Sky and ESPN will have a 90% reach.

In asking them to "consider again what may be in the best interests of UK viewers, and the circumstances in which they might broadcast a small number of major events free to air", the panel are hoping they may offer some services unencrypted.

It was also pointed out that there was "compelling evidence of a public expectation" that the BBC had a responsibility to prioritise such sporting events, given their licence fee funding.

If the recommendations are adopted, the BBC would certainly be among the favourites to secure rights to Ashes Test matches having had a long history of covering cricket prior to 1999.

A BBC spokesperson said: "The BBC welcomes the recommendations made by the Davies panel on listed events, and the support the report gives to the principle that it is in the public's interest to protect events of national importance to ensure they remain free to air.

"We will be reviewing the findings and recommendations and will respond in full in due course."

Channel 4, the last free-to-air broadcaster to screen live home Test matches before Sky acquired the rights, are not thought to be interested in immediately getting involved in cricket again.

But a spokesperson said: "We would consider bidding for sporting rights as and when they do come available for tender."