Ashes on Pick TV: The shape of things to come for List B protected sports eventsAlex Haffner
As the England cricket team toil Down Under, a potentially significant development has taken place in the sports broadcast arena with Sky's announcement shortly prior to the Ashes that it would be making available highlights on its free-to-air (FTA) 'Pick' channel.
This means for the first time since terrestrial broadcasters lost interest in covering overseas England tours, that viewers can access highlights on England matches without needing to hold a Sky Sports subscription. Sky's decision also comes at the same time as BT Sport has concluded its deal with UEFA for exclusive live coverage of Champions League and Europa Cup matches, including a commitment on BT Sport's part to make available certain matches FTA.
Sky's announcement and the structure of the BT Sport deal bring back into focus the on going debate as the UK's Listed Events regime and specifically how that regime should best deal with sporting occasions which are deemed to be of sufficient national importance that they should be broadcast FTA.
Much of the debate has previously focussed on the extent to which events should be on the so-called "List A", such that live coverage is preserved for FTA exploitation. For example, both FIFA and UEFA have (unsuccessfully) sought to challenge the inclusion on that list of the whole of the football World Cup and European Championship final tournaments before the European courts. However, the other important aspect of the Listed Events framework is the protection afforded to "List B" events, being those for which highlights (but not live) coverage has to be made available FTA.
The definition of FTA under the Listed Events legislation captures only "qualifying channels", being those that are:
(a) available to 95% of the population, and
(b) free in the sense that no payment is made for them.
At present only BBC1 and 2, ITV, Channel 4 and Five are officially designated as such. As the Davies Committee recognised in their report during the UK government's last attempt to reform the Listed Events regime, digital switchover means that channels made available on platforms such as Freeview can meet the coverage requirement above. Assuming one takes an expansive interpretation of what constitutes a free channel, then arguably "basic" channels such as Pick, ITV2-4, BBC3 etc should also be included as qualifying channels.
Though the last review of Listed Events ultimately went nowhere, the Department for Media Culture and Sport promised to look into the whole regime again once digital switchover was complete.
In view of Sky's ground-breaking decision, it seems that the time is ripe now for it to do so and, in particular to re-consider the definition of a qualifying channel. With rights holders constantly looking for ways to increase their broadcast revenues, some more competition for highlights rights to B listed events would clearly be a welcome development for them at least.
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