Uncharted Territory

May 25, 2016

Marketing Live Chess Broadcast Rights

Background: Agog at Agon’s Candidates Broadcast Monopoly

The moves of chess games have always been in the public domain.  Anyone can quote them in any medium including whilst games are in progress.  Indeed, in recent years live internet broadcasts of commentary on games at chess tournaments and in matches have become very popular with the chess community.

It was in this context that several chess websites geared up to broadcast commentaries on the most significant chess tournament of 2016, the Candidates tournament in Moscow which opened on March 10th.  The winner of the Candidates gets to play the current World Champion in a match for the title of World Chess Champion, so we’re all looking forward to watching Sergey Karjakin challenge Magnus Carlsen in November. But two days before the Candidates started, the organisers, a company called Agon, working with the worldwide chess federation, FIDE, forbade anyone else from broadcasting the moves until 2 hours after each game.  They did this by requiring anyone accessing the official website to sign a “Clickwrap Agreement” agreeing not to retransmit the moves.  Presumably onsite spectators and journalists were subject to similar restrictions.

Malcolm Pein, the editor of Chess magazine, noted in the May 2016 issue (p.4-5) that Agon’s attempt “to impose a new order on the chess world” were “cack-handed” and it is indeed very unfortunate that FIDE has been involved in preventing a number of websites from supporting what I would have thought is its core objective, promoting the game.  The sites are likely to have incurred costs as a result, perhaps having committed to pay commentary teams.

Furthermore, as Pein notes in his Chess editorial, aspects of the Agon Candidates commentary left something to be desired.  He highlights an unfortunate incident when the moves were inadvertently shown swapped between games at the start of the last round.  I noticed that too, and was also confused for a moment by the disconnect between the commentary and what actually appeared to be happening, but much more serious was the quality of the commentary itself.  I felt it was interrupted much too often for breaks, usually to show the same couple of ads, plus what I’ll describe as “pen-portraits” of the players (cartoon-style drawing accompanied by commentary).  These were quite entertaining the first time you saw them.  Not quite so much the tenth time.  And, although the commentary team obviously worked hard to help the audience understand what was going on, I’ve enjoyed other commentators somewhat more.  The commentary is much more important in chess than say football, since (as non-players will appreciate!) there are periods of a game when there’s nothing much to see happening on the board.  I would have liked the choice to watch another broadcast.

Steve Giddings writes, also in the April edition of Chess (p.8-9), that preventing unauthorised broadcast of chess games is in “the commercial interests of the game”.  That may be so, but it seems to me that monopoly broadcasting is not the best way forward.

Given the goals of promoting chess by maximising the number of viewers of chess matches and tournaments and maximising revenue from the broadcast of elite events, simply in order to pay for them, a better option would be to license multiple broadcasters, if they’ll pay collectively more than would a single exclusive media outlet.  I outline in this article how the revenue-maximising number of broadcasters could be established by a simple process of bidding for a share of the rights.

First, though, let’s consider how other sports rights are sold and then whether times have changed – perhaps other sports might want to reconsider granting exclusivity – and how chess is different. I focus particularly on the case of domestic rights to broadcast the English Premier League.

The Football Precedent: English Premier League Live Broadcast Rights

When I was a kid, the FA Cup Final was always shown live simultaneously on both BBC1 and ITV.  So much for consumer choice – at the time there were only 3 channels (the other one being BBC2).  Nevertheless, there was competition, of a sort.  Sometimes we’d switch over to see what they were saying on the other side, though when the ads came on we’d switch back.

One might wonder why ITV would bother broadcasting the Cup Final when it was also on BBC (without ad breaks) and, indeed, why the FA would sell it to two broadcasters rather than just one.  I can think of two considerations:

  1. There was some product differentiation between the broadcasts on BBC1 and ITV.  The channels employed different commentators and pundits.  This produces what I would argue is healthy competition for viewers between broadcasters.
  2. Strange though it may seem to many younger readers, back in the day many – perhaps most – households watched either ITV or BBC almost exclusively, even though they both were (and still are) free-to-air.  It could be argued that the choice between watching BBC and ITV used to be very much driven by social class or at least the social class households identified themselves as belonging to, but that is actually irrelevant to the argument.  The point is that broadcasting the FA Cup Final on both ITV and BBC ensured that the product reached more people – ITV viewers and BBC viewers – than it would have done had it gone out only on BBC or ITV.

Presumably ITV could attract enough viewers and sell enough advertising to make it worthwhile to broadcast the FA Cup Final even though BBC1 was showing it too.

Sports Broadcast Monopolies

Why, then, you might ask, is almost all football shown in the UK now, in 2016, indeed, almost all sport (and much other content besides), broadcast on just one channel?  That is:

  • why have sports broadcast monopolies developed?;
  • why do sports administrators tolerate and even encourage broadcast monopolies?;
  • and whose interests do sports broadcast monopolies actually serve?

Some years ago I had the dubious pleasure of a job interview with BT; actually they wasted an entire day of my time at their recruitment centre (and even more with some further interviews later on).  The question arose in discussion – I guess after we’d noted the ongoing convergence of internet and broadcast media – as to how BT could best grow their broadband market.  I suggested offering some exclusive movies.  Perhaps my interlocutor was playing Devil’s advocate, but I don’t think so; regardless, he seemed to be arguing that they should market on the basis of their whizzy new network.  No, no, no!  The vast majority of consumers care only about what appears on their TV; they don’t care at all about the underlying technology.  And if there is some exclusive content – I mentioned movies at my BT interview because Sky had already “done” sport – that is likely to be decisive in winning customers.

It seems clear from their enthusiasm to enter into them that exclusive deals for live sport transmission rights are in the interests of subscription broadcasters, particularly when  trying to build a customer base.  We have the example of the English Premier League (EPL) and much other sport (as well as films and other content) on Sky, now being contested by BT.  Netflix and Amazon are exclusively hosting supposedly must-see drama series.

As a consumer, I’m always wary when I’m told something is “exclusive”.  The very word suggests to me that someone is being ripped off.  Probably muggins.

But let’s not jump to conclusions.  Besides, what we’re really interested in is the health of the sport – that is, chess, when I get to the end of this preamble.

So, could exclusive sports rights sales be in the interests of the sports themselves?

Well, when broadcasters are trying to grow their business – think of Sky and the EPL – they may be prepared to pay what appears to be a substantial premium for a monopoly.  I say “appears to be a substantial premium” because at some point the broadcaster has to demonstrate income (advertising and/or subscriptions) commensurate with the expense.  Otherwise they go bust.

It’s not immediately apparent, and, indeed, somewhat counter-intuitive, that a single broadcaster of live events or TV series can unlock more advertising and/or subscription income than can multiple broadcasters of the same material.  Nevertheless, many sports administrators appear to believe monopoly broadcast deals are in the interest of their sport.   At least in the short term.

An example of what can happen in the longer term is provided by EPL broadcast rights in the UK.  Sky held the exclusive rights from the start of the Premier League in 1992 until 2007.  After the European Commission ruled that Sky should not have exclusive rights to all matches, they had competition, first from Setanta, who ran into financial difficulties, then ESPN, who took over Setanta’s rights and most recently BT who came into the market in 2012 prepared to bid aggressively against Sky for a whole range of football and other sports rights and apparently with equally deep pockets.  Guess what happened once there was competition?  The total paid for EPL live transmission rights went up.  Considerably.

Note, though, that what Sky and BT bid for is how much of the monopoly each enjoys.  They are not in direct competition, in the sense of broadcasting the same matches, as BBC1 and ITV used to be in the case of the FA Cup Final.

The only logical conclusion is that – given that live broadcast rights to the EPL have a definite value represented by the income they can generate – they were previously being sold too cheaply!  Who’d have thunk it?

Players on £50K a week 5 years ago should be a bit miffed.  They could have been on £60K!

Why are BT and Sky paying more than Sky alone did?

Is it a conspiracy against the consumer, as I once read a commentator claiming?  Apparently, he wrote (I think it was a “he”) EPL fans would now have to buy two subscriptions.  As someone who only buys one, it might be worth pointing out that, unless it’s your team playing, or a key fixture (in which case there’s always the option of going to the pub – a form of pay-per-view) it doesn’t make that much difference which match you watch.  You don’t know in advance whether a particular match is going to be exciting.  In other words, if you’re only going to watch 20 matches a season, there’s not much point paying for 200.

Are BT and Sky trying to buy or defend market share and therefore overpaying?  Well, there may be an element of this, but, first, from the point of view of the sport this is a good thing.  Second, companies can’t do this for ever.  BT is now established in the market.  I doubt they’d be paying so much for 3 years of broadcast rights if they didn’t think they’d make money on the deal.

Has BT unlocked market segments Sky wasn’t reaching?  Yes, I believe so.  I pay a small add-on to my broadband internet deal to receive BT’s sports channels, which I watch online, on a PC.  For the number of matches I actually manage to watch I can justify this cost, but not a Sky subscription (plus charges for set-top boxes and so on).

But it may also have been that Sky was paying less than the EPL transmission rights were worth and making excess profits as a result.  These have not necessarily all appeared as profits in its accounts, but may have also been reinvested, for example, in establishing a dominant position in the UK in the broadcast markets for other sports, such as cricket.

A market needs to be competitive to establish the real value of a product.  It’s in the long-term interests of sports themselves, I suggest, to maintain a competitive market for broadcast rights and not allow monopolies to develop.  Such monopolies might end up underpaying until a competitor eventually challenges them, as, I argue, appears to have happened for EPL live broadcast rights in the UK.

In addition,  it’s in the long-term interests of sports for as many people as possible to be able to watch them.  This is best achieved by a number of broadcasters with different business models reaching different segments of the market.  It’s worth pointing out that sports administrators sometimes ensure that at least some events are “free-to-air” in order to show-case their product, for example the World Cup and, this summer, the UEFA Euro 2016 tournament (at least in most European countries).  This month’s FA Cup Final was broadcast on the BBC as well as BT Sport.

Differences Between Chess and Football

After that somewhat longer discussion of football than I had intended, let’s get back to chess.  As I’ve argued, even football could consider selling live transmission rights to multiple broadcasters, but are there differences between chess and football) that make monopoly broadcasting a less attractive option in the case of chess?

I believe there are several relevant (though interrelated) differences:

First, live chess is typically broadcast globally, over the internet.  This means that the peculiarities of local markets are much less relevant.  For example, in the UK the playing field for broadcasting football was uneven when Sky entered the market.  Sky had to have content that was not available to the free-to-air channels ITV and the BBC or no-one would have subscribed; and it needed subscriptions to fund the cost of its satellites.  OK, there is at least one place where chess appears live on TV: Norway, home of the World Champion, Magnus Carlsen.  But given the general reliance on the internet for broadcasting chess, it makes sense to simply leave distribution to the broadcaster and not sell rights separately for different platforms (TV, internet, mobile devices etc).

Second, and related to the first point, the world has moved on in the quarter-century since the EPL broadcast model was established.  To some extent sports channel subscription revenues funded a dramatic increase in the number of channels available by enabling satellite and cable TV.  But with the growth of TV over the internet, the potential number of channels is vast, and the entry-cost considerably lower than in the past.  Broadcasters don’t need huge guaranteed revenues to justify their business models.  Furthermore, given the flexibility of advertising charging that is possible on the internet – essentially payment depends on the actual number of viewers – advertisers do not need historic broadcast data.  They’ll just pay for what they actually get.

Third, the commentary and presentation is a more significant part of the overall package in the case of chess than it is for football.  Personally, for normal tournament commentaries I’m as much interested in who’s commentating than who’s playing.  I’d be much more likely to tune in if Maurice Ashley, Danny King or Peter Svidler are explaining a game.

Fourth, chess is still at the experimental stage, still trying to explore what works best in live transmission.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense to stifle this process by restricting the number of broadcasters to one.

Fifth, interest in chess is global.  Viewers might appreciate broadcasts in their own language as well as English.

Sixth, there are a limited number of marketable chess events.  To promote the game, as well as maximise revenues, it makes sense for these to be available to as many viewers as possible.

Seventh, I don’t believe there is a pot of gold waiting for someone able to sell advertising round chess events.  Compared to football, it’s always going to be a niche market.  Indeed, for many of the chess sites – Chess.com. Chess24.com, the Internet Chess Club (ICC), Playchess.com and so on – that broadcast (or might broadcast) elite chess events, covering live events is, unlike in the case of football, only part of their offering to visitors to their site (who may pay a subscription).  These sites also allow you to play online, host articles and instructional videos and so on.  Unlike the sports channels of Sky or BT, losing live transmission rights is not an existential threat.  They are therefore unlikely to pay huge sums for monopoly rights.  Collectively, though, they may pay a decent amount for something that is “nice to have”.  The resulting choice for viewers would also be beneficial to the game and raise broadcast standards.

For all these reasons it seems to me that it makes sense for chess events to be hosted by multiple broadcasters.

Price Discovery for Chess Broadcast Rights

Before considering the mechanics of an auction for chess broadcast rights, let’s first establish a principle: all broadcasters will pay the same price.

Live sports transmission rights are generally sold territorially.  That’s messy already – people cheat by importing satellite dishes from neighbouring countries and so on- but in the age of internet broadcasting its unworkable.

One might also consider language restrictions.  Why should a broadcaster be able to reach the whole Chinese population or the English, Russian, French or Spanish-speaking world for the same price as an Estonian native-language broadcaster?  Well, don’t worry about it.  The market will take care of things.  Broadcast auctions will be a repeat exercise and, if the price is low compared to the size of the market in a specific language, that will simply encourage more broadcasters.

What if some broadcasters are mainstream TV channels, in Norway, for example?  Again, don’t worry about it.  Just leave distribution up to the broadcasters.  TV channels are competing with internet broadcasters.  The only restriction should be that a one licence – one broadcast rule.  If a broadcaster wants to transmit to multiple audiences, in different languages, say, or by producing different versions tailored to experts and the general public, then they have to buy two or more licences.

What would the broadcasters buy?  An automatic feed of the moves (top events nowadays use boards that automatically transmit the moves electronically) is obviously essential.  Since you don’t want numerous video cameras in the playing hall, the organisers (or a host broadcaster) would also provide video feeds of the players, often used as background to the commentary (generally in a separate window).  Post-game interviews or a press conference are also usual and these could be part of the package, as could clips from the recent innovation of a “confession-box”, where players can comment during their game.  Broadcasters would edit these video feeds together with their own commentary to produce their final product.

Let’s make one other thing clear about the objective of the auction process.  The goal is to maximise revenue.  This is not in conflict with the goal of maximising the online audience and thereby promoting the game.

So, how would the auction work?  How can we maximise revenue from an unknown number of broadcasters all paying the same price per transmission stream?

Here’s my suggestion.  The broadcasters would be required to submit a number of bids each dependent on the total number of broadcasters.   That is, they would bid a certain amount to be the monopoly broadcaster, another amount (lower, assuming they act rationally!) to be one of two broadcasters, another amount to be one of three, and so on, up to some arbitrary number, for example to be one of more than ten broadcasters.

The chess rights holder – FIDE, for example – would simply select the option that generates most revenue.  All bidders would of course pay what the lowest bidder offered to be one of the specific number of bidders chosen.  E.g., if 2 bidders are successful, one bidding $70,000 to be one of two broadcasters and the other $60,000, both would pay $60,000.  In this case, neither broadcaster, nor any other, would have bid more than $120,000 for exclusive rights and no 3 more than $40,000 to be one of 3 broadcasters, nor 4 more than $30,000 to be one of 4, and so on.

For example, it may be the case that one bidder bids more to be the sole broadcaster than any two bid to be dual broadcasters, any three to be the only three broadcasters and so on.  In that case, one broadcaster would secure a monopoly.  Or, at the other extreme, 12 broadcasters might, for example, bid more to be one of “more than ten” broadcasters than any sole broadcaster bid for a monopoly and so on, and more than 13/12 times what the unlucky 13th highest bidding broadcaster bid to be one of “more than ten” broadcasters, 14/12 times what the 14th highest bidder bid, 20/12 times what the 20th bid and so on up to the total number of bidders.

It’s my guess that revenue will be maximised for a World Championship match by a relatively large number of bidders.  And the crucial point is that the more broadcasters, the larger the audience and the greater the choice for viewers.



April 4, 2010

BBC Muppets in Malaysia

Filed under: BBC, F1, Media, Sky, Sport — Tim Joslin @ 7:03 pm

I wonder how many other F1 fans missed the last 19 laps of this morning’s Malaysian GP? Yeap, the BBC switched coverage from BBC 1 to BBC 2 part way through the race, on lap 37 of 56, to be exact. Totally unnecessary. Apparently they needed to make way for some religious event. But they could have shown the Easter Service on BBC 2 instead of BBC 1, or, if that wasn’t acceptable, the entire race on BBC 2. In fact, I’ve just bashed off a complaint.

I’ll let you know how much of my licence fee is refunded for cutting short a race I was thoroughly enjoying ( I was watching maybe an hour behind real-time on a PVR, having paused at various stages of breakfast, so, by the time I found out the end of the race was on the other side, it was way too late).

I couldn’t help reflecting on how poor the BBC’s sports coverage can be. And how little competition there is in general in the sports broadcasting market.

A while back I had an idea as to how to sort the mess out. Maybe if I keep saying it people will take some notice.

To recap, my suggestion was to sell rights to sporting events to multiple bidders. If the highest bid is, say, £100m (for exclusivity), then the rules would allow one of the other bidders to obtain the rights for £55m, the first bidder also paying £55m (joint exclusivity). If another bidder comes in then all three would pay, say, £40m. This prevents one organisation achieving a monopoly, but, aside from that, leaves everyone better off – fans get a choice of channel (or delivery mechanism if one is an internet broadcast); the winning bidder saves some money (so can afford to buy some more content); the second and subsequent bidders get access to content they wouldn’t have obtained otherwise; the sport gets more money (£110m with two bidders, £120m with three, rather than £100m with a single bidder, in this example) and more coverage.

One problem with Ofcom’s current plan to regulate the sports broadcasting market is that it only generates competition between platforms: Sky, Virgin, BT and so on will all effectively pay the same price for Sky Sports channels.

It does nothing to encourage new, perhaps cheaper sports channels, and in my judgement makes channel competition even less likely.

Platform providers should never have been allowed to run channels in the first place. This should have been addressed when Sky first came along. Maybe Murdoch’s outrageous interference with our democratic processes has muddied the waters. A little clarity of thought would surely have led regulators to nip such a dysfunctional monopoly in the bud.

The current measure – to regulate the wholesale price for Sky Sports bundles – is not sensible, as some commentators seem to think. Immediate suspicion is always justified whenever very specific regulatory measures are proposed. If anything, this one will cement the position of Sky Sports. There are “two sides” in this, but they’re not Sky and the competition. They’re the customer and the sports themselves.

And the customer is getting screwed. Sky Sports will cost at least £20 a month (since the wholesale price is £17.14). That’s £240 a year. The BBC’s entire licence-fee is about £140. So they can’t compete, unless, as I also suggest, they charge a separate sports licence-fee (since many people watch no sport at all), once the analogue switch-off ensures that all viewers can have access to dozens of channels (which could include BBC Sports 1, 2…).

Many people will not take Sky Sports, but make do, as now, with the residual “free to air” coverage on BBC and ITV, some of it controversial because it arguably reduces the income to the sports.

If you have a monopoly, in this case Sky Sports, profit is maximised when some people can’t afford the product. That’s just how it is – 10 million paying £240 a year (£2.4 bn) brings in more money than 15 million paying £120 (only £1.8 bn). If putting the price after costs up 10% costs you less than 10% of your customers then you may as well do it.

But more people could afford to watch at least some sport if there were offerings at, say, £240 (Sky?), £120 (ESPN, ITV?) and £60 (BBC?) a year. In this scenario Sky would show (as now) a lot of sport and the BBC just the choice events. Because multiple broadcasters would show at least some events, Sky would actually be able to show even more sport for £240. And sports wouldn’t be disadvantaged if mandated to allow “free-to-air” coverage (sorry the use of the term “free-to-air” makes me laugh – ITV is free to the viewer, since ads pay the bills, but BBC coverage is not “free”, it’s just that you’re not allowed not to buy it! A situation that’s becoming increasingly bizarre).

And you’d even be able to choose which channel to watch those choice events on!

All this while the sports themselves earn even more from the rights!

October 15, 2009


Filed under: BBC, Cricket, Football, Media, Sport — Tim Joslin @ 8:30 am

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!

July 13, 2009

Bring Back BBC Bias!

Filed under: BBC, Cricket, F1, Media, Sport — Tim Joslin @ 10:13 am

With so much sport to choose from, it takes something special to grab my attention – genuine rivalry, perhaps, like the Ashes. Or a special individual. I happen to think Lewis Hamilton is a driver of exceptional talent. My interest in F1, like that of millions of others, was rekindled when he burst on the scene.

I was therefore fuming when Hamilton’s McLaren suffered a puncture on the first corner of yesterday’s German GP, leaving him in last place for the rest of the race. Like millions of others I was interested to know exactly what had happened.

I was rather puzzled that Hamilton appeared to lose it at the first corner and not only ran wide but, at first sight, must have collided with another car (Raikonnen’s Ferrari was the candidate) on rejoining the race. OK, there’s a bit of “My boy can do no wrong”, about it, but such errors would be very uncharacteristic for Hamilton, who, as I said, is pure raw talent.

Sure enough, the plot soon began to thicken. It was announced that the Australian Red Bull driver Mark Webber, who ended up winning the race, was under investigation for an incident at the start. The BBC’s “expert pundit”, former under-achieving Scottish driver David Coulthard (if you’ve followed that Wikipedia link, then, like me, you’ll have been reminded that Coulthard’s last racing team was – you’ve guessed it – Red Bull) immediately announced that Webber had done nothing wrong. His comments suggested that his basis for this was that he “hadn’t seen a collision”.

At this stage we hadn’t seen any clear replays, so Coulthard clearly believes that he has the ability to monitor exactly what is happening over a few seconds to 20 cars speeding away from the start of a GP. No-one else can do this, especially whilst simultaneously commentating, so Coulthard is clearly superhuman and deserves every penny of the millions he earnt not winning many races.

Replays soon confirmed that Webber had in fact side-swiped Barrichello’s Brawn going into the first corner. Webber admitted in the post-race interview that he thought Barrichello was on the other side of him! Lucky he wasn’t on a public road, or he’d be facing a dangerous driving charge. Miraculously, the collision had little effect on Barrichello or Webber’s cars. On another day, though, Webber’s mistake would have taken out half the field.

David “Superman” Coulthard’s opinion was, of course, unchanged by the visual facts of what had happened.

Webber received a drive-through penalty, which was insufficiently severe to prevent him winning the race. What sort of sport is this becoming? When I used to watch, the penalty was a 10 second stop, as well as a drive-through.

What the stewards didn’t investigate, though, was what happened next. Webber bounced off Barrichello, and – no doubt shocked to have found a car already there as he headed to the apex of the first corner – also steered left where Hamilton happened to be going round his outside. It turns out Webber clipped the McLaren forcing him off the track and giving him the puncture that cost him the race.

But the Beeb’s narrative was what a “brilliant performance” by Webber. Sorry, I expect sports coverage to reflect at least some of what I feel about the event, not construct some dumbed-down narrative. Webber was lucky his car wasn’t wrecked after playing dodgems at the start; lucky F1’s punishment regime is a joke; lucky not to find himself behind Hamilton and Barrichello at the start (and vulnerable for a lap or two to Kers-powered overtaking moves by the Ferraris and Kovalainen’s McLaren); and lucky too, as it happened, that Brawn screwed up a Barrichello pit-stop, relegating the closest rival to the Red Bulls to 6th. Maybe there’s a reason the “brilliant” Webber had not won any of his previous 129 GPs.

Not only is the Beeb happy to give Webber more credit that he deserves, they are also apparently happy to do down the British talent:

“Hamilton had fancied his chances of scoring a podium finish after qualifying fifth – and a fuel-corrected third fastest.

But after benefiting from his Kers power-boost system to contest the lead with Webber and Barrichello going into the first corner, Hamilton missed his braking point and ran wide.

He got a puncture and rejoined last where for some reason the McLaren, which has a major aerodynamic upgrade this weekend, did not show the pace it had on Saturday.”

What’s this “fancied his chances”? Subtext: “but got egg on his face”, eh? And “benefiting from Kers”? – with the implication that he doesn’t deserve it. But he should benefit. The car has to carry the Kers gear around the track! And McLaren have made design compromises to put it in the car. And probably budget compromises too – working on Kers rather than other aspects of the car (only McLaren and Ferrari have effective Kers systems). I expect they thought F1 was serious about including this “green” technology, and that it wouldn’t be quietly dropped as is being done next season. And Hamilton was so far behind (he had to limp to the pits with his puncture) that there was no point flogging it. There may also have been other damage to his car.

Yes, much of posterity will believe this latest poor result was purely Hamilton’s fault. Anyone using the Guardian’s archive will get the same impression as at the BBC:

“Lewis Hamilton had a bad day after being forced into the pits shortly after the start with a puncture. He made a strong start from fifth but ran wide after turn one. He returned to the track but was bumped from behind almost immediately.”

Independent readers will see Kimi Raikonnen slurred by name:

“As for Lewis Hamilton, on a day when he and McLaren felt their year of woe would potentially end with a podium, he could not have anticipated it would end so disastrously and in such swift fashion.

From fifth on the grid, and aided by a push of the KERS button, the world champion made a storming start.

As Webber and Barrichello played dodgems, Hamilton appeared poised to take full advantage, only to overcook it and run wide into the sharp first-corner hairpin.

Returning to the track in fifth place, Hamilton’s right-rear tyre was punctured by the front wing of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari, which was not to be the only incident of the day involving the Finn.”

Raikonnen has been wrecking a lot of other drivers’ races lately, but not Hamilton’s on this occasion.

Whilst the Independent is happy to report what a BBC commentator guessed had happened, the Times actually bothers to get it right:

“Defending world champion Lewis Hamilton finished 18th and last after an attack on the opening lap saw him involved in a collision with Webber that cost him a puncture.

Webber bashed into Barrichello’s car on the run from the start to the first corner, a collision for which he was punished with his drive-through penalty, but he overcame that with a dazzling drive to victory.”

After this, I woke up this morning expecting to hear the BBC revelling on England’s remarkable escape in the First Ashes Test – listening to the last overs of this had rather raised my spirits. But no, Auntie had decided “the angle” was supposed England delaying tactics. It did seem England had overstepped the mark (though part of Strauss’s explanation – trying to ensure the players out there knew how long they had to last – is very plausible), but this had no effect on the match – the Aussies lost no overs. The rule was 15 overs or an hour’s play whichever is the longer. Can anyone imagine the Aussies (or any other Test side) allowing the bowlers to achieve more than 15 overs in the last hour in similar circumstances?

Look, BBC, I pay my licence fee because – oh, sorry, you’re a monopoly – anyway, I expect what British viewers and readers would consider balance. Winning a GP after playing dodgems at the start is not “brilliant”, and to deserve to win a Test you actually have to look like being able to take the last wicket. If I want the Aussie angle, I’ll find out how to get their coverage over the internet!

January 2, 2009

Plus ca change…?

…as the French say (sorry about the lack of a cedilla there).

A New Year resolution was to blog about any interesting news stories first thing.  But, plus ca change…

At the start of 2009, though, perhaps I may be forgiven for wondering in what areas of our lives the record is broken and where there really is a trend.

Take the financial crisis.  I sense a worm has finally turned.  There’s a growing caucus bold enough to argue that it isn’t all the fault of bad people (the causes of socio-economic disasters are never quite so simple).  Rather, trade imbalances – the dangers of which many have been warning for years – are the root causeSo says Hank, and I presume Win alluded to much the same thing, though the Times’ report of his Radio 4 interview focuses on the bankers rather than the rest of those at fault (such as those responsible for overseeing the financial system perchance?).

Whilst the discourse around this crisis may be entering a new phase, I very much doubt we’ll avoid similar mistakes in future.  The FT article reporting Paulson’s thinking concludes:

“…avoiding crises in future will require global macroeconomic co-operation as well as better financial regulation and risk-management.”

This “global macroeconomic co-operation” is simply not going to happen.  Pie, meet sky.  If governments instead concentrate on defending their own economies against the positive feedbacks that have turned a US property debacle into Great Depression 2, then we’ll have a much better chance of avoiding GDs 3, 4 and 5.  We’re not going to eliminate booms and busts anytime this century or next, but focusing on minimising the effects – such as the knock-ons from personal and corporate bankruptcies – will help break the cycle of fear that exacerbates the situation.  A little more equality would also help.  In particular, enacting policies to prevent the wages of the low-paid ever again getting so out of line with their housing costs would provide more of a buffer against personal and systemic economic crises.  Hopefully a lot more will be said on this topic in 2009!

I sense, too, that in 2009 more of the political heat in the UK will be directed at Gordon “Superhero” Brown and – perhaps this is wishful thinking – the insufferably smug and incongruously arrogant (in that he doesn’t have anything to be arrogant about) Alistair Darling.  Away over the Christmas period, I was able to access the BBC’s World News channel (why are all the BBCs channels not on cable here?) and caught the interview Darling gave to a sycophantic Robert Peston.  Apparently Freddie G said the Government’s discussion was “less of a negotiation and more of a drive-by shooting”.  Spot on!

How dumb it now looks to be fining the UK banks with (among other things) 12% coupons on prefs. (a lot more than elsewhere, as DeAnne Julius observes).  This doesn’t increase their capital, it decreases it, since the first thing they’re going to do with any profits is pay off this particular debt.

I’ve just started reading Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money.  (And a New year’s resolution is to actually finish it before starting something else).  He makes the point in his Introduction that he aims to improve financial literacy.  Laudable, but doomed.  After a spike of interest in the operation and pathologies of the global financial system, the current crisis will be forgotten, and the next generation will make similar mistakes.

The travails of the global economy has pushed global warming (GW) from the headlines.  But there is more chance of awareness helping solve GW, which is a one-time phenomenon (though there will no doubt be other even slower-burning environmental disasters to deal with).  I don’t agree with the scientists who, according to the Indy, apparently believe we need to start creating new problems.  Didn’t their nursery school teach them the folly of swallowing a spider to catch a fly?

We’re still at the stage of building a consensus for action.  Thinking is progressing, for example, in another book I’m reading (remembering my resolutions!), Oliver Tickell’s Kyoto2.

But something has changed. Global economy, global warming… Anyone spot a pattern here? Maybe 2008 will be remembered as the year the world really became global.

Then there’s the war in Gaza.  2006 revisited?  Not really.  The political climate is different – as if the fever of El Nino has given way to the chill of La Nina.  As we were reminded in Georgia in August, propaganda is now a key determinant of the outcome of these nasty little local difficulties.  Israel realises this, and has raised its game, seemingly with some effect.  Hamas’ position is untenable.  Continuing to fire rockets at Israel, while hoping an international outcry over humanitarian concerns will prevent Israel from achieving its objectives on the ground, allowing Hamas to claim a victory now, like Hizbullah back in the day, simply isn’t going to work this time. C’est pas la meme chose. Hamas will condemn the Gazan people to a nasty winter on CNN if it continues on its present path.

On the other hand, as I remember my MP wisely pointed out last year, there is scant hope for a change in the bigger picture in the Middle East, unless Obama can perform some kind of miracle.   Robert Fisk appears to be a commentator who knows what he’s talking about: cynical he may be, but unrealistic he is not.

What with war in Gaza and the house-price bubble in reverse, it does seem we’ve returned to 2006.  Not only that, Russia is messing with gas supplies to Ukraine.  Again.  But what’s their game?  This isn’t a record that can go round and round.  Every time Russia plays this card it becomes less effective.  Their customers accelerate their efforts to diversify supply and to build facilities to store fuel.  By the sound of it, Ukraine is less over a barrel (or should I say cubic metre!) than in 2006, and can last out for a while.  And if Ukraine ends up paying West European rates for gas, Russia has no lever at all.  You’d think the Kremlin would keep its powder dry.  Or is this latest spat leading to something more serious?

Tricky business, trying to work out what is really changing and what is simply a repeat of the past.

Here’s one observation, though.  Maybe some of the power of the British media is ebbing away.  I refer not to the John Sargeant affair, but to the SBBC Sports Personality of a vintage Year.  To my delight, Chris Hoy won by a landslide, but apparently was not the favourite:

“Hoy, who became the most successful male Olympic cyclist of all time after winning three gold medals in Beijing, said he was ‘absolutely stunned’ to be named BBC Sports Personality of the Year, after recording almost 40% of the public vote. In beating the favourites, Lewis Hamilton and Rebecca Adlington, into second and third place, he overcame one of the strongest fields in the prize’s 55-year history.”

Look, a simple opinion poll could have shown this would happen.  Believing Hamilton would win the award by a lap or two, sections of the media seemingly set out to promote Rebecca Adlington as a rival.  But the British public is not stupid.  Sure, Adlington did a Dame Kelly, winning 2 golds, but Hoy bagged 3 – the first Brit to do this since 1908, FFS – not to mention one in 2004.  Hmm, let’s think about this one, shall we…?

A final thought is that maybe 2008 will prove to be a watershed year, when Britain stopped being a nation of sporting losers.  But don’t bet on it.  Not until after the Ashes anyway!

July 2, 2008

They Go To SW19

Filed under: Media, Sport, Tennis — Tim Joslin @ 8:11 pm

Apologies to Nigel Williams.

As I start to write Andy Murray is 3-4 down in the first set of a Wimbledon QF against Rafael Nadal.  I was rather hoping the man from Majorca would have sorted the out the boy from Dunblane by now, but as is usual in a British sporting summer, rain stopped play earlier on this afternoon.  Nadal is taunting Murray with drop-shots, though, and the Scot couldn’t deliver with the only one he tried.

I thought it was just me who was appalled by the scenes in Murray’s previous match with Richard Gasquet, well me and the lone voice in the crowd that shouted out: “Come on Gasquet, do it for England!”.

But then I happened to browse through a copy of the Mail someone had left on a table in the cafe this morning.  A columnist in that paper (sorry, can’t find the article online) found Murray’s behaviour gross.  I’m not sure about that.  I was surprised that he had the energy to win the match, though.  I turned on towards the end of the 3rd set (when Murray was 2 sets and a break down) and from then until the end of the match he basically – sorry, there’s no genteel way to put this – jerked off after every point.

A lot’s been made of Murray’s anti-Englishness – “anyone but England” for the 2006 World Cup – and of course that doesn’t help turn me into a keen supporter.  David “Chelsea shorts” Mellor, who knows a thing or to about the behaviour of the media (and sport, his column in the London Evening Standard is always worth reading) was on the radio this morning challenging Murray to drape himself in the Union Jack.  I think Mellor meant if he beat Nadal, but I now I read he lost no time in doing this.  The bread-head.  Does he think we’re stupid?  A lot of people would have more respect if he had the Saltire tattooed on his forehead, if that showed how he really feels.

I hardly follow tennis, but young Andy got my attention when he decided to give the world his views on who should be in Britain’s Davis Cup team – besides himself, of course.  I expect Alex Ferguson will ask Wayne Rooney who to pick this season, then.  After all, Rooney has won a lot more than Murray.

So, not being a partisan supporter, the scenes on Monday evening appalled me.  Not because I’m anti-Scottish.  I hope I’m not.  I never had much time for Tim Henman either, so such Centre Court scenes were fairly unfamiliar.  Besides, Gasquet is French! 😉  And it’s not because I’m offended by a bit of fist-pumping.  It’s because Gasquet didn’t have the option of trying to get the crowd behind him.

If life weren’t so short I’d form the Campaign to Abolish Nationalism from Sport – slogan: “Just CAN it!”.  For me, nothing ruins a World Cup like the host country out-performing – France 1998, say, or Japan/Korea 2002.  In fact, most of them!  Euro 2008 was so good partly because the hosts Austria and Switzerland never got going.  The best team won the tournament.  Yes, it may come as a surprise to many, but the idea of a competition is to find the best team or player.  To be honest, I don’t even think the host country should compete in the World Cup.

Let’s hope – though I suspect it will be in vain – that China don’t win bucketfuls of medals in the Olympics.   And if they do, I’m sure it is equally pointless to hope that the success is met by anything other than overt nationalism.  We don’t want a repeat of the 1984 Los “USA USA” Angeles games.  I hardly remember Atlanta except switching off in disgust at Linford Christie’s absurd disqualification from the 100m final simply for being good at the start.  In fact it was not until Sydney 2000 that my boyhood enthusiasm for the event was reignited.

Poor Gasquet, who admittedly needs to toughen up, was reduced to pleading with the umpire.  All to no avail.  After the match all he could say was that he’d love to play Murray at Roland Garros.  I hope he does.

The BBC must take a lot of the blame.  They had 10 million watching on Monday and were hoping for 12 million this evening.  Clearly they have a commercial interest in corrupting sporting values.  Their commentary team were finding the crowd’s treatment of Gasquet all very amusing.  Presumably not the same team who, when I turned on for Federer vs Nadal in the French Open final just a few weeks ago, I distinctly heard making snide comments about the French crowd.

Some of the BBC’s editorial decisions are bizarre.  Just before this evening’s match Federer trounced his QF opponent.  We were told to switch channels for the next match up, Murray vs. Nadal, and the Beeb’s coverage of an imperious win by Federer ended with… clips from Murray against Gasquet.  And the Corporation had the hypocrisy in a news bulletin last week to start wittering on about how the Scot mysteriously becomes British for Wimbledon, as if that’s the fault of me, the viewer.  You couldn’t make it up.

But who are these people who go to SW19?  They’re not being directly influenced by the television coverage.  I cringed with embarrassment when they booed Gasquet as he left for a comfort break and returned to the court between the 4th and 5th sets.  All within the rules, and predicted by the commentator.  Don’t they realise they’re being manipulated? – and that Murray – aided in advance by the media in general, and the BBC in particular – used them to tip the balance against a more skillful opponent?

Such behaviour isn’t British.  It’s certainly not cricket.

Nadal is 2 sets to 0 up, 5-3 in the third.  I don’t sense a repeat performance…

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