12 Jul 2016 19:32 IST

Broadcast neutrality — the next battle?

The avarice of the sporting leagues and networks is killing sports by restricting access

In the business of television, “broadcast neutrality” is nowhere to be found. Exclusive and pricey deals between content providers and TV networks have blacked out programming for millions of viewers. The networks are sending out a clear message: If you want to watch our programme, subscribe to our channel. Otherwise, you’re out of luck and we will use every tool available to us to fight “unauthorised viewing”.

The idea of allowing everyone access to public programming is not new — this is why we have Doordarshan in India, the BBC in the UK and the broadcast stations in the US.

Information is delivered to every home that has a TV, without requiring viewers to decide which channels they need to buy. How the signals are routed, whether through public frequencies, satellite or cable, is not relevant. What is important is that content is available to the public at large.

Appeal of spontaneity

Consider live sports programmes on TV. Rarely recorded on a DVR for future viewing, live sporting events are the Holy Grail in television. Promoters know that sports action cannot be choreographed through a number of takes, as when filming a movie or a serial. The outcome of the action and the resulting drama are instantaneous, generally unknown prior to the game, all of which add to sports’ appeal.

For these same reasons, sports can also be considered a public good. Unlike other forms of art, everyone can try their hand at it, right from participating in a cricket game on the street to playing a game of Kabaddi on an empty residential plot. Sporting competitions remain the last vestige in the public square where success and failure are largely dependent on the effort, competencies and skills of a team or one person. This is why the Olympics continue to retain their attraction even today.

Why then is all sports programming not available on public airways?

Because, avarice

It all boils down to money and greed. The big sporting leagues know how important TV is to their revenue models, and work with networks to exploit the benefits of live sports programming through deals that beat out poor public channels like Doordarshan, which can ill afford to fork out millions in broadcast rights.

The biggest culprit of capitalising sports to this degree is ESPN, the venerable US behemoth which single-handedly changed sports entertainment and viewing habits forever. The network airs “must-see” sports programming that content distributors cannot broadcast live without entering into exclusive partnerships with sports leagues.

The seasons of the four major US sports — baseball, basketball, ice hockey and football — are all limited to a part of the year. The collusion among the leagues and the networks is finely tuned for maximum viewer impact — that is, a Major League Baseball regular season game rarely conflicts with a National Basketball Association playoff.

Numbers don’t lie

The numbers are truly staggering. According to Sports Business Daily and the Associated Press, until 2013, the terrestrial television networks CBS ($3.73B), NBC ($3.6B) and Fox ($4.27B) — as well as ESPN ($8.8B) — paid a combined total of $20.4 billion to broadcast National Football League games in the US.

From 2014 to 2022, the same networks agreed to pay a whopping $39.6 billion for the same broadcast rights — nearly a 100 per cent increase. These fees amount to the GDP of more than 110 nations, including such countries as Jordan, Iceland and Serbia. All for one network to cover one league in one country.

No wonder that a recent estimate in Forbes valued ESPN at over $50 billion.

On home soil

Exclusive deals are common in India too. Sony Entertainment Television (SET) is rumoured to have paid BCCI $1.63 billion in 2009 for a deal to broadcast IPL. The channel has exclusive rights to broadcast through 2017, which means unless someone has subscribed to SET, they cannot watch the popular T20 matches . So much for democratising a game that is enjoyed by India’s large rural masses, many of whom cannot afford to pay steep charges to subscribe to sports packages of the major cable and satellite companies.

Because the networks pay such obscene amounts to air exclusive live content, they are extremely guarded in how they protect content rights. Someone who live streams the channel’s content on Youtube or Facebook is instantly brought down.

It never used to be this way.

When system backfires…

In a curious twist, however, the overzealous network police may actually be limiting the reaches of the very sport that the network wants to promote.

Consider what has happened to tennis broadcasts in the US.

Tennis has been losing ratings for years, partly because men’s tennis hasn’t had a US player in the top 10 for a decade now. Serena Williams is the lone star among the women. But there is another reason tennis was losing ratings — narrower coverage (a result of network decisions) caused viewership to drop.

Just a couple of decades ago, grand slams would be telecast live on one of the big TV networks — CBS or NBC — which reach just about every American home; even those with rabbit-ear antennas. The initial matches were carried on a cable network, such as USA or TNT, but the finals were shown on the broadcast networks.

A few years ago, though, ESPN picked up coverage of the slams, edging out CBS in its vaunted coverage of the US Open. Not everyone has the pricey ESPN on their package, so naturally, viewership dropped.

This year, ESPN decided to bail out of coverage altogether. Now, for example, all matches of the French Open (except the finals) are shown only on the obscure Tennis Channel, a network that is only available if one subscribes to the Top 250 package, further relegating a great sport to the fringes of the TV remote.

This is already happening in India. NeoSports, an also-ran in the business of sports, has exclusive rights to broadcast the French Open.

A vicious cycle

If different sporting events are shown on different networks — such as ICC World Cup Matches on Star Sports and IPL matches on SET — viewers are forced to subscribe to every sports channel there is, causing them to get frustrated and turn off altogether. In response, networks have to increase subscription costs, causing even more viewers to bail.

The avarice of the big sporting leagues and networks is killing sports by restricting its access to only those who can pay. Sports, the most democratic institution that is still left, is being distributed in a most undemocratic fashion.

It is time we brought broadcast neutrality to sports. Just like the world did to net neutrality.