I ordered a number 36 from the local Indian takeaway the other night. When I went to collect the meal it was a king prawn vindaloo. “But I ordered a chicken korma”, I complained. “Sorry sir, we decided to change the menu”. Never mind. I made it to the cinema anyway. I’d booked a ticket for the controversial alien prawn apartheid Nigerian gangster gore-fest District 9. But instead I found myself watching the beautifully filmed, but spoilt by saccharine narration and intrusive over-dramatic score Disney flamingo gore-fest The Crimson Wing instead. The cinema said they’d got a good deal and decided to go with the big birds at the last minute.
OK, there was no curry surprise, nor one at the cinema. But these examples are no different to what the BBC did on Saturday. They announced at the end of the Radio 5 commentary on Ukraine v. England – controversially to be shown only live only over the internet, from £4.99, or at selected cinemas, from, I heard, £12 – that the highlights WOULD after all be shown on regular TV later that evening.
Call me old-fashioned, but if I’m going to watch highlights I prefer not to know the score. If I’m not going to watch highlights, and I can’t watch live, then the next best option is to listen to a live commentary. So I decided to find an excuse to be near a radio for 2 hours on Saturday. I volunteered to do some cooking. Had I known in advance that I’d be able to watch highlights, then I would not have cooked my goulash just so that I could listen to the football commentary. Most likely I would not have cooked my goulash at all. In fact, it’s fair to say I planned a large part of the day around the football.
For decades we have become accustomed to a television medium where transmissions – by and large – follow a “schedule”. Exceptions are rare. I’m still annoyed, for example, that the BBC suspended coverage of the enthralling 1980 world snooker final to show coverage of the SAS operation to end the Iranian embassy siege on both channels. Pointless. After 10 seconds, I’d got the point and decided to read all about it in the next morning’s paper.
I’m therefore astonished at the insipid media response to the BBC’s decision not to inform us a little earlier about the Ukraine-England highlights programme. There was some kind of media programme on the radio this afternoon (OK, I can be arsed to check the schedule in this morning’s paper which is 2 feet away – it was The Media Show, 1:30pm, Radio 4 – see how this scheduling lark works Mr BBC? Convenient, isn’t it?). At the start they mentioned the footie scheduling decision as if that was to be the main topic on the programme. But “But first…” turned into around 28 minutes of waiting (BTW, audiences hate this sort of trickery to keep you listening or watching), before some lame muttering to the effect that if the Beeb hadn’t accepted an embargo on announcing the highlights programme then we wouldn’t have seen it at all. Personally (as a license-payer) the highlights were worth not very much at all – £x, say – having listened to the entire game on the radio, and would have been worth quite a bit – say £10x – had I known about them in advance. If, as I read somewhere, the BBC paid £900k (+ broadcasting costs + annoyance to viewers who wanted to watch the News or the Football League programme which were displaced at short notice), then maybe the highlights weren’t such good value after all. Reportedly some 4 million of us tuned into the highlights. Maybe a lot of these switched on, as I did, just to see if the England game really was on. Maybe a lot simply put the telly on and watch whatever the BBC chooses to show, since this episode indicates that is obviously how Auntie believes we will consume moving pictures in the future.
I wasn’t a fly on the wall during the negotiations between the BBC and the company that bought the rights to the qualifier, but I would imagine there was a price the internet-streaming rights owner would accept to allow highlights without pre-announcement, and a (higher) price with an announcement. I bet the higher price wasn’t £9 million. Why didn’t the BBC simply say “Actually [I imagine that's the sort of word they would use], we can’t jerk our viewers around like that”?
There exists in the UK a list of sports events that must be made available “free to air” – the so-called “crown jewels”. This list is currently up for review. The problem is – a point taught in class 1, Economics 101: profit maximisation principles – you can make more profit by not satisfying demand, assuming all purchasers have to pay the same price and you can’t “segment” the market. E.g. 10m people paying £1 to watch a football game earns you £10m, but if you can get 2m to pay £10 you’ll rake in £20m. Maybe you’d be best off finding 50 billionnaires willing to pay £1m each…
The point is, we live in a very unequal society. Government (as usual) is trying to address the effects rather than the causes by mandating that some events must be free to air. The trouble is, it leaves the sports affected financially worse off. Kind of a poor reward for creating a popular product – and often helping promote a sense of national identity.
Maybe there’s a better solution.
Let’s bear in mind that “free to air” is an incoherent concept and really a synonym for “in the good old days”. BBC channels, strictly speaking, are not free to air, since you need a licence. OK, the BBC is in the ludicrously privileged position that if you have a TV the law assumes you watch the BBC and need a licence. In other words, the BBC licence fee is an unfair, regressive tax.
Maybe the BBC licence fee could be reduced. Maybe people should only pay for TV content they actually want. And whilst I like to watch sport, I am aware that many people watch none. In a few years we’ll all be digital with many more channels – BBC Sports 1 and 2, for example. Why not charge a basic BBC licence-fee and a supplement for sport? (The same may apply to other content, of course, e.g. access to the BBC’s archive via iPlayer).
So if free to air is a woolly concept, why doesn’t the Government simply relax the rule so that instead of “free to air” it simply stipulates that sports events must be available to multiple broadcasters?
Remember the mobile-phone spectrum auction that raised £22bn? I’m not advocating such grasping behaviour, but we could use a little bit of the smarts that were behind that operation to devise a way for multiple broadcasters to show sports events, whilst maintaining the total income to the sports.
Here’s one way you could do it. You’d have an auction as now for the rights. Let’s say the winner – Sky, perhaps – bids £10m for a particular sports event. This has established the value of the event to a monopoly broadcaster, since Sky would have to assume they’ll be paying the full £10m. But now we’ll allow another broadcaster – the BBC, say – to share the rights for 50% of the price offered by Sky, which both would then pay. If ITV also wants to show the game, then all would pay 33.33%. If ESPN wants it as well, then 25% each. If someone wants to stream it over the internet for Brits abroad (if global rights are on offer), or to fans watching on mobile phones, then 20% each.
It might be even better for 2 bidders to pay 110% of the original price – 55% each or £5.5m in this example – 3 to pay 120%, 40% each or £4m – and so on.
Now, I reckon this would create a win-win-win situation:
- sports would maximise their income , whilst also reaching the maximum number of viewers (in fact, the market is being segmented, since the cost per viewer varies);
- viewers would have more access to sporting events and could choose the commentary and form of coverage they wanted – broadcasters would have an incentive to improve or at least differentiate their products;
- broadcasters could follow their various business models. E.g. Sky and ESPN could show a lot of sport to people who pay a premium, the BBC and ITV could show a selection of popular events, and so on;
- the Government gets out of making tricky decisions about the “crown jewels” every few years.
Certain events – the World Cup Final, for example – are already shown simultaneously on multiple channels. Viewers are able to choose their commentary and punditry teams. I remember how, when I was a boy, we used to argue over which channel to watch the FA Cup Final on – on our neighbours’ colour TV! Let’s bring those days back. Jumpers for goalposts…
OK, there are a few problems to sort out. E.g. side-deals may be needed to avoid too many cameras at sports events. But surely it must be possible to improve on the current situation where either sports lose out financially or many viewers have no access to key sporting events, like the Ashes – not good for the long-term future of the sport.
Whatever the rules, perhaps the BBC could spend our money a little more wisely in future than it did by agreeing to keep secret its purchase of Ukraine v. England highlights. FFS, BBC, For Footie’s Sake!