The future of Australian sport on free-to-air TV looks shaky, with the anti-siphoning list due to expire in April

  • Australia’s anti-siphoning list expires on April 1 this year, raising questions about the future of sport on free-to-air television.
  • The list designates major sporting events the communications minister believes should be available to Australians free of charge, and gives free-to-air broadcasters the right to buy rights to those events before subscription competitors.
  • Advocates are concerned that the deadline is drawing near with no public consultation or conversation about the expiry of the list.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

The future of sport on Australian free-to-air television is now in doubt, with the anti-siphoning list set to expire in April with no clear picture as to whether it will be renewed or reviewed.

The anti-siphoning scheme, first introduced as part of the Broadcasting Services Act in 1992 with the emergence of paid subscription television, gives free-to-air broadcasters the opportunity to buy the rights to certain events before their paid competitors do. It is intended to ensure that events deemed culturally important are freely available to all Australians.

Though technically any event could be added to the anti-siphoning list, it has historically been used exclusively for sport. The current list, released in 2010, includes tentpole events like the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games and the Melbourne Cup, as well as matches in major sporting leagues like the AFL and the NRL and designated competitions in rugby union, cricket, football, tennis, netball and motor sports.

The current anti-siphoning list is due to expire on April 1. If it were allowed to lapse, it would be possible for pay television or streaming services to obtain the rights to previously protected sport events. For example, a platform like Foxtel could buy the exclusive rights to any sport on the list, with no events available on standard free-to-air television.

A spokesperson for the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications did not confirm whether the anti-siphoning list would be renewed after its April 1 expiry, but said the matter was being considered.

“Consideration is currently being given to the steps that will be taken to address the sunset date of the anti-siphoning list,” the spokesperson told Business Insider Australia.

“The Government will continue to monitor the anti-siphoning scheme and industry trends to make sure the scheme retains its relevance in the digital media environment.”

Free TV, the peak body representing Australia’s free-to-air television broadcasters, says it has been lobbying the government on the expiry of the anti-siphoning list.

Despite the fact the list expires in less than two months, Business Insider Australia understands Free TV has not been informed what process or steps are being undertaken to review or renew it. No public consultation has been undertaken on the list or the anti-siphoning scheme more broadly.

Bridget Fair, CEO of Free TV, told Business Insider Australia the list should be renewed, with due consideration given to the new, increasingly digital media landscape.

“The anti-siphoning list was designed to ensure that all Australians could access the important sporting events that bring our nation together, for free,” Fair said. “That goal is just as relevant today as it ever was.

“It is critical that the list is renewed and also that the Government expands the scope of the list to reflect the modern media landscape, to cover streaming and over-the-top services as well as pay TV.”

The Australian sport broadcasting landscape has changed dramatically

The debate about what the anti-siphoning scheme should look like, or whether it should exist at all, has been ongoing almost as long as it has existed.

In 2000, a Productivity Commission review of the anti-siphoning scheme found that it was exclusionary and gave free-to-air broadcasters “a competitive advantage” over their pay TV competitors. A later 2009 assessment was even more critical, describing anti-siphoning as “a blunt, burdensome instrument that is unnecessary to meet the objective of ensuring wide community access to sporting broadcasts”.

“The anti-siphoning regime imposes regulatory burdens because of the protracted commercial negotiations required in respect of listed events,” the report reads. “To address this issue the Australian Government should substantially reduce the anti-siphoning list.”

When the current anti-siphoning list was introduced in 2010, widely accessible internet streaming was in its infancy. The explosive growth of both local and international streaming platforms has significantly affected Australian viewing habits, and sport has not been immune to this disruption. Foxtel now offers a popular streaming platform of its own, Kayo Sports, and Nine will stream rugby and tennis as part of Stan Sport, an add-on package for its streaming platform Stan.

Even tech giant Amazon is moving into sport broadcasting in Australia, snapping up the rights to stream swimming trials for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games on Amazon Prime Video.

Earlier this week, Netball Australia announced a new deal with Kayo Sports. Under the deal, all Australia national netball team games and two other games a week will be broadcast on Kayo Freebies, the platform’s free tier. To access Kayo Freebies, users need only provide an email address.

Netball does appear on the current anti-siphoning list, but in reduced form: only the final and semifinal of the Netball World Cup are covered, and only if the Australian national team is playing.

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, Foxtel boss Patrick Delany gave a strong indication the Kayo Freebies model could apply to other sports like the AFL and NRL – allowing Foxtel to buy the rights while broadcasting the required matches for free, remaining in compliance with the anti-siphoning scheme, at least on paper.

“The Kayo Freebies is very much about keeping subscribers engaged when they pause their subscription and it means that if we can’t find a free-to-air partner or the deal is not appropriate, we have got the Freebies,” he said.

Free-to-air sport ‘part of Australian national culture’

David Rowe, Emeritus Professor of Cultural Research at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University, told Business Insider Australia that despite a shifting media landscape, free-to-air broadcasters and their related digital platforms still have the widest reach to the most Australians.

“My position has always been that free-to-air sport is an important part of Australian national culture,” he said.

“We have certain cultural citizenship rights. Events of national importance and cultural significance are described in the [Broadcasting Services Act] and are supposed to be as widely available as possible.

“As soon as you take it off free-to-air television and put it onto a paid service – be that streaming or subscription – you are eroding cultural citizenship rights in Australia.”

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