Labour’s broadcasting spokeswoman Clare Curran says Government regulation is needed to rectify New Zealanders' lack of free-to-air television access to major sports.
Her party opposes Sky TV’s buy-up of major national sports over the past decade. “Sky have held at bay the prospect of regulation probably for decades, and very successfully. I have said for a couple of years now that that has to stop,” says Ms Curran.
With the ink just dry on an exclusive five-year deal to show the V8 Supercar series, Sky has completed a master coup. The subscription-based channel has now bought up all of New Zealand’s major sporting series.
“It’s a monopoly in a regulation-free environment. It’s doing all it can to boost its own revenues and the outcome ultimately is that people who can afford a Sky subscription get to see a sport and people that can’t or choose not to can’t get it and can’t get our national sports,” says Ms Curran.
“The Olympics coverage and the lack of coverage of the Paralympics is probably the best example we’ve seen in a long time of just how disadvantaged New Zealand is through having these single deals done where almost half the country is locked out of getting access to the live coverage,” she says.
The broadcaster is quick to defend itself, saying the opportunities it offers to cover all sports for entire seasons – as opposed to free-to-air’s limited coverage – are best for New Zealand.
“We got a lot of criticism for the Paralympics, which is unfortunate, because we doubled what TVNZ showed the last Paralympics," says Sky TV’s head of corporate communications Kirsty Way.
“We were the only New Zealand TV company to place a bid... We aired everything that we bought rights to… I would suggest it wouldn’t have been on TV at all if Sky hadn’t broadcast it.”
The shift to pay TV
The landscape of free-to-air sports on TV has changed dramatically in the past decade.
In 2003, TV One held the rights to broadcast the Rugby World Cup, V8 Supercars, Formula 1, IndyCar series, NASCAR series, the Olympic Games, Paralympics, Sevens World Series, Commonwealth Games and America’s Cup.
TV3 held the rights to international cricket matches featuring the BlackCaps, All Blacks test matches, the Super 12 and National Provincial Championship.
All of these – except the America’s Cup – are now on Sky.
“It’s almost like we’re asleep at the wheel to the fact we’re being ripped off by not being able to watch major sporting events,” says Ms Curran.
Sky is over the moon with the haul.
“We’re really happy, and we’re happy to be involved in the growth of some of those sports, not just the broadcasting of them but the growth of them. The [ANZ Championship] for example is something that we created or were part of creating and developing.”
TV One lost out the most to Sky’s buy-up, but a spokeswoman said it was not allowed to speak out on the issue because it is a Crown entity. TV3 also refused to comment. Ms Curran is happy to speak for the broadcasters though.
“TVNZ and TV3 were struggling to get the contractual arrangements with other content distributors, the overseas distributors, and struggling to compete with Sky which has very deep pockets,” she says.
“This Government has just done what somebody described as putting its hands over its ears and over its eyes on the issue… and saying ‘there’s nothing wrong here’.”
The Ministry of Culture and Heritage started a review under Labour in 2007 but this was scrapped by the National Government when it came into power the next year.
Sky's bulging wallet is also causing bulging channels. With only three sports channels and a specialist rugby channel, could there be future conflicts?
Sources have told 3 News the broadcaster is planning to expand its sports network to include a second ESPN channel within the next two months and Sky Sport 4, but Ms Way would not be drawn on this.
“Lots of people have asked about ESPN, I don’t think there’s any concrete plans to introduce that, and I can’t confirm about Sky Sport 4 either.”
What effect would regulation have?
Ms Curran says the only solution to Sky's monopoly is Government regulation. Labour is not prepared to announce a policy at this stage but says the issue is high on their agenda if they do return to power in 2014.
Ms Curran would like to see a model similar to Australia’s – which mandates the vast majority of sport be free-to-air – but concedes an American model with series shared across channels and platforms could be more sustainable.
“It’s not about being anti-Sky, it’s about Sky operating in an environment which is much more fair… It shouldn’t always be able to buy up and have exclusive rights to our major sporting events,” Ms Curran says, “That just does not happen in most countries. It’s not allowed to happen.”
But Sky says if the market was forced open, New Zealand sports fans could lose out as the country struggles to keep sporting talent.
“Once you start regulating things you have to look at the financial implications so obviously top dollar can be paid for the rights, once you start diluting that the funds and the finances going to the different sporting bodies have the potential to dramatically decrease,” says Ms Way.
“That has a huge flow-on effect from maintaining or retaining top key players in New Zealand, top All Blacks for example.”
With the National Government silent on the issue - as well as both major free-to-air channels - New Zealand sports fans without access to Sky will be forced to continue waiting for a resolution.