Fair Game? The BBC and the future of sport on free-to-air television

Providing ‘free’ access to sport is one of the BBC’s vital public roles. If this function is to be preserved in a post-broadcast age it must be reinforced by state legislation.  

Paul Smith
31 July 2015

London Olympic opening ceremony. Image: Flickr / Maykal

In an era of multi-channel digital television and increasingly fragmented audiences, live television coverage of major sporting events remains one of the few forms of programming able to bring the nation together for a shared viewing experience. In 2013, for instance, when Andy Murray became the first British winner of the men’s singles title at Wimbledon for 77 years, he was watched by a (BBC) television audience of over 17 million. Perhaps even more impressively, over 90 per cent of the UK’s population watched at least some of the BBC’s coverage of the 2012 London Olympic Games, with audiences for the opening and closing ceremony each exceeding 25 million.

Of course, the access of viewers to live television coverage of events like these in such huge numbers is dependent on their continued availability via the BBC and other free-to-air broadcasters. To illustrate the point, it’s worth considering the example of Ashes cricket. In 2005, Channel Four’s coverage reached a peak audience of 8.2 million. Four years later, following the sale of the exclusive TV rights to Sky, the audience peaked at 1.9m and, in 2013, just 1.3m. On Saturday afternoon, when England clinched victory in the First Test Match of this summer’s series, the TV audience was just 474,000, only marginally more than a repeat of Columbo being aired at the same time on ITV3! Cricket may well be earning far more from the sale of its rights to pay-TV, but it is less and less part of the national consciousness.

This is not just a problem for cricket. The example highlights a major problem for the future of public service broadcasting too. Sport is and has long been a vital part of the range of different programme genres provided by UK public service broadcasters. For the BBC, sports coverage provides a means to achieve some of its key ‘public purposes’. Specifically, in 2010, in its Putting Quality First strategy document, the BBC emphasised the importance it attached to continuing to offer a broad mix of UK and international sports coverage that includes: major events that bring communities and nations together; minority sports that bring communities of interest together and broaden cultural horizons; and sports serving audiences that are otherwise under-served by the BBC, such as young men, lower-income and ethnic minority audiences.

However, a combination of the escalating costs of sports rights and a squeeze on its own finances means that there is a very real danger that sport, and particularly live sport, will become an increasingly marginal feature of the BBC’s output. Following the 2010 licence fee settlement, which froze the level of the licence fee for six years, a 16 per cent cut in real terms, and forced the Corporation to take over from the government the cost of funding a host of existing and new areas, including the BBC World Service, the BBC cut its sports rights budget by 15 per cent and committed itself to limit spending on sports rights to an average of 9p in every licence fee pound.

The announcement in this year’s Budget, that the BBC is to take on from the government the £600 million-plus annual cost of providing free TV licences for people aged over 75, will inevitably result in further reductions in spending on sports rights by the BBC. In fact, the impact of the BBC’s shrinking sports rights budget is already evident. In February, it was announced that the BBC had lost the live rights to the Open Golf Championship to Sky, bringing to an end sixty one years of live coverage of the event on free-to-air television. To avoid a similar fate with other sports, the BBC is looking to share the cost of rights with other broadcasters where once it was able to command exclusive coverage. Two weeks ago, the BBC and ITV announced that they had agreed a joint six year deal to offer live coverage of Six Nations Rugby, with ITV set to televise all England, Ireland and Italy home matches and the BBC to cover Wales and Scotland home matches. This strategy may well enable live coverage of key sporting events to remain on free-to-air television, but it cannot disguise a significant dilution in the capacity of the BBC to achieve its key public service objectives.    

Listed events legislation

Against this backdrop, the position of the BBC (and, albeit to a lesser extent, other free-to-air broadcasters) in the UK sports rights market is more dependent than ever on the continued existence and enforcement of listed events legislation, which effectively guarantees that certain key national sporting events remain available on free-to-air television. Dating back to the 1950s, the listed events policy has a long history in the UK (and is now overseen via a European Union Directive), but it was during the 1990s, when, in Rupert Murdoch’s often quoted phrase, Sky began to use sports rights as a ‘battering ram’ to open up the market for pay-TV, that the issue of sport on television was propelled to the centre of debate on UK broadcasting policy.

Since the 1990s, the scale and scope of the legislation, as well as the principle of ‘the list’ itself, has been the subject of two major government reviews (Lord Gordon, 1998; Davies, 2009). In 1998, the recommendations of the Gordon Review were fully implemented and led to the establishment of the current ‘A‘ and ‘B’ lists of events for the protection of live and highlight coverage on free-to-air television respectively.

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 23.07.27.png

More recently, in 2009, the Davies Review recommended the abolition of the ‘B list’ and the delisting of some events (the Winter Olympics, The Derby and the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final), but also a significant extension of the main (live coverage) list to include: cricket’s (home) Ashes test matches; home and away qualification matches in the FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championships; the Wimbledon tennis Championship (in its entirety); the Open Golf Championship; the Rugby Union World Cup tournament (in its entirety); and, Wales matches in the Six Nations Rugby Championship (in Wales). However, the Labour government that commissioned the report was unable, or unwilling, to find time to legislate before the 2010 General Election and the subsequent Coalition government proved even less keen to implement Davies’ recommendations. 

Nevertheless, the availability of major sporting events on free-to-air television remains a potentially controversial issue. Towards the end of last month, the IOC announced that it had agreed a Pan-European deal with Discovery, the owner of the pay-TV broadcaster, Eurosport, for the exclusive rights to the Olympic Games, between 2018 and 2024 (although only for 2022 onwards in the UK). This means that the BBC will soon lose control of the rights to broadcast the Olympic Games and will be dependent on the continued existence of listed events legislation to ensure the sub-licensing of rights for free-to-air coverage. Against this backdrop, it is well worth restating the case for listed events legislation and the implementation of the recommendations of the Davies Report.

Ultimately, ‘listed events’ legislation is required because, in the absence of such legislation, coverage of high profile sporting events will tend to migrate from free-to-air broadcasting to pay-TV. There is certainly considerable evidence to support this point from the UK and beyond, perhaps most notably in relation to top level domestic football. At the same time, however, it should be remembered that much, if not most, of the sports coverage provided by pay-TV broadcasters does not consist of programming previously available via free-to-air television. On the contrary, for the most part, the additional sports programming provided by pay-TV broadcasters over the last couple of decades has consisted of either more extensive coverage of sports that were previously shown by free-to-air broadcasters, or coverage of sports and sporting events that previously received little, if any, airtime on free-to-air television.

The growth of pay-TV has provided benefits for both viewers and sports organisations, but this does not lessen the case for listed events legislation. The argument for such legislation is based on its potential to promote (and/or preserve) ‘cultural citizenship’ in two key ways. First, listed events legislation may be justified on grounds of equity. For instance, last year Ofcom published research that highlighted the rising cost of pay-TV subscriptions for UK viewers. The (further) exclusion of low income groups from access to sporting events broadcast exclusively on pay-TV is the likely result of any watering down of the current listed events legislation.

Secondly, one of the main benefits of ensuring that major sporting events are broadcast on free-to-air television is the generation of what economists refer to as ‘positive network externalities’. In simple terms, an individual not only enjoys the event and the ‘conversational network’ through viewing, their participation also adds value to the network for everyone. This concept is highly significant to the debate on listed events legislation because it can be seen to apply to the difficult to quantify, but no less real, shared benefits that can result from the coverage of major sporting events on universally available free-to-air television – think London 2012 and the ‘feel good factor’.  

The opposition of many sports organisations to the listing of their sports is based on the belief that they are best placed to judge how to further the interests of their own sport, and in particular how to balance the potentially increased revenue to be gained via pay-TV with the benefits (not least commercial via increased sponsorship revenue) of greater exposure through free-to-air broadcasting. Even though the example of English cricket suggests that this may not always be the case, the key argument in support of listed events legislation is not that policy makers and regulators know better than individual sports organisations how to promote the best interests of a particular sport. Rather, it is, as noted above, that the wider public interest in the form of cultural citizenship is served by the availability of particular sporting events on free-to-air television.

For sports organisations whose events are protected for free-to-air coverage, the existence of listed events legislation may well be a source of frustration, but it is not particularly unusual in democratic societies for certain property rights to be subject to state regulation in the public interest. Planning laws mean that those who live in heritage properties cannot do with them exactly what they want. In order to promote cultural citizenship and to preserve public service broadcasting, the same is true for listed events and sports organisations.

If you want to keep OurBeeb debating the BBC, please chip in what you can afford.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData