Mark Steel: The viewers' right to Andy Murray

An NBC stunt showed me what getting rid of the BBC could mean

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This time the free market won't stop me watching Andy Murray in a semi-final. Last year, as he was about to play Andy Roddick at Wimbledon, I was in a hotel room in California watching the ESPN sports channel that had shown the matches up to then. I'd even organised some teabags for the morning, but as the match was about to start, ESPN showed an old match from years ago instead. I flicked desperately through 80 channels, past an advert for a centre that trains dogs to do yoga and an evangelist cooking show, and it wasn't anywhere.

So I went through them all again and there was Spongebob Squarepants in Japanese and a documentary about a man who said he'd been fishing with aliens, and I was hyperventilating by now so I went downstairs and asked the bewildered receptionist, who was also Japanese, what we could do.

He tried to understand, but at different points he thought I wanted to play tennis in the room, get a taxi to Wimbledon, and find out why Andy Murray was late for breakfast. So I set up a computer to listen to the radio commentary from the BBC, but that was barred, as was any website that linked to any commentary. It seemed probable there had been a military coup, as that's the only time there's such a sudden disconnection with the outside world. But surely even a newly installed tyrant would understand that this was a semi-final.

Then I rang ESPN, who told me NBC had bought the rights, but weren't showing it. Instead they'd blocked all TV, radio or computer access to the match, as they were planning to broadcast it later in the day, and would get a higher audience if no one knew the result.

How could such evil be possible? It's one thing American business supplying arms to Saudi dictators and backing the overthrow of elected governments, but surely they couldn't get away with this.

Yet apparently this is an NBC habit. They played the same trick with the last Olympics, and do it for any sporting event that has the audacity to take place in a time zone that doesn't coincide with prime-time viewing.

By contrast, as BBC2 are showing the tennis from Australia, millions will watch Murray if he reaches the final, most of whom would barely be aware he was playing if the matches were only on subscription channels. So it might seem that the NBC stunt is the sort of thing that can only happen in America, but when newspapers and politicians froth and rage against the BBC, this is the type of broadcasting they'd replace it with.

Sport is usually considered to be a distraction from the real world, but this sort of thing illustrates how it's just a different version of the real world, a product that could provide vast amusement and pleasure, or a market price, depending on who controls it.

So the scavenging sports channels raise their demands like blackmailers. If they had the tennis, on the morning of a final they'd announce you only had the rights for one half of the court, and had to agree to pay £6.99 a month if you wanted to see the other side of the net.

The worry must be that NBC will start up a news channel next, with an announcer telling viewers: "There's been a terrorist incident somewhere in the world today. Was it a suicide bomb or a hijacking? And did it end in catastrophe or an idiot setting himself on fire? You can find out tonight at 6.30, when we'll bring you the whole incident, exclusive here on NBC news."

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