Sky Sports resorts to off-tube commentary following fall out with BCCI

Published 12 February 2013 | Authored by: Tom Burrows

2012 was a golden summer for British sports fans, with viewers treated to stunning sporting performances by Team GB at London 2012, Bradley Wiggins in the Tour de France, the European Ryder Cup team and Andy Murray at the US Open. This success for British sport continued with the England cricket team recently making history by becoming the first England side to win a test series in India since 1985. 

Whilst viewers in the UK were able to watch the record breaking exploits of Alistair Cook and his England side through Sky Sports' coverage, such coverage was threatened by a dispute between the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and BSkyB which ultimately led to BSkyB‘s commentary team providing off-tube commentary (i.e. recorded by BSkyB’s commentators describing the pictures they were seeing on the television in Isleworth, rather than being at the various stadia in India) of the matches.

The fundamental issue between the parties was the BCCI’s demands for payments in respect of the provision of unilateral facilities for BSkyB’s commentary team at the venues. It is reported that the BCCI requested the sum of $800,000 in order to provide studio space, a commentary box, a control room, an audio and video feed, a scoring monitor and space for satellite uplinking from the venues1.

In order to understand how such a dispute could have arisen, it is important to first set out how such broadcasting rights are granted and, following the grant of such rights, the contractual processes required in order to create, produce and deliver such broadcasts globally.

As the governing body responsible for Indian cricket, the BCCI is the entity that owns and controls the broadcasting rights for all international and domestic cricket that takes place in India. Rather than grant the rights to international broadcasters directly, the BCCI licensed the worldwide rights to a single broadcaster, Star TV2. This deal was for a reported sum of $750 million and covered 96 matches during the period 2012 – 20183. This six year term was a result of the BCCI’s termination of an agreement with Nimbus Sport International for the period 2010-2014 following reports of non-payment by Nimbus4.

Having acquired the worldwide rights, Star TV sub-licensed the rights on a territorial basis to other broadcasters around the world, such as BSkyB for the territory of the United Kingdom and Ireland, and Supersport for South Africa.

As a licensed international broadcaster, BSkyB is reliant on the host broadcaster (the entity that records the live feed for an event) delivering the live feed to an agreed access point in order for a generic international feed to be produced and delivered to it. Usually, such production and delivery can either be undertaken by the host broadcaster itself or by third party production and technical partners engaged by the event organiser.

Following an unsuccessful bid by ESPN Star Sports for the production rights in respect of cricket in India, the BCCI announced in July 2012 that it would be undertaking the production of all home international and domestic events itself in-house5. This has become more common over recent years as sports have grown to such a level of commercial maturity and sophistication that it makes commercial sense for them to produce their own coverage in-house. We are now seeing event organisers establishing companies specifically to produce the live coverage of their events. For example, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) used OBS London (2012) to produce and distribute the feeds from the 2012 Olympic Games.

Consequently, it was the BCCI and not Star TV (the global rights holder) that was responsible for providing services, such as the provision and/or booking of ‘unilateral’ facilities (e.g. studio space or other facilities for the purpose of producing on-site supporting commentary, presenter links and interviews), for the benefit of the broadcast licensees. 

Therefore, whilst BSkyB acquired the broadcast rights for transmission in the United Kingdom and Ireland from Star TV, it did not acquire access rights to commentary positions and other unilateral facilities at the venues, meaning that the BCCI could effectively name its price. 

This is an issue that can arise frequently in media rights deals, as it is common practice for the provision of unilateral facilities to be charged according to an applicable rate card in addition to the licence fee.  Often, the best position that a licensee can achieve is an undertaking that those prices will be reasonable, but even then (as the current situation highlights) what is reasonable can be open for debate. Whilst the BCCI may have considered the $800,000 fee for the provision of such unilateral facilities to be reasonable, with a BCCI official quoted as saying that "to create an additional space of 2,000 sq ft, fully air conditioned ... will bear a lot of cost"6, BSkyB apparently did not. The ideal position for any broadcaster would be to have the amount of any necessary additional fees agreed at the contract stage, but this is often not possible and is not (yet) industry standard.

It is this stand off that led to BSkyB deciding against sending a commentary team to India, instead preferring to provide independent commentary from its London studio.

It is unlikely that BSkyB’s provision of off-tube commentary had a dramatic effect on its audience numbers; in fact some viewers may not have noticed any difference at all. However, this was not the case for the BBC, who had acquired the radio rights for the tour, and who was also affected by the BCCI’s stance. As a radio broadcaster, the BBC felt that it was vital for its commentators to be able to convey the atmosphere from the venues, in order to set its coverage apart from off-tube sites (such as TestMatchSofa.com), where commentary is simply provided on an unlicensed, unofficial basis from television pictures. Accordingly, the BBC was effectively backed into a corner and considered that it had to reach an agreement with the BCCI over the reported additional fees of $80,0007 to ensure that its Test Match Special commentators were granted access to the venues in order to provide commentary. 

Whether or not the fees requested by the BCCI were reasonable and accurately reflected the cost of providing such unilateral facilities, this situation demonstrates the difficulties that can arise for broadcasters when concluding a media rights deal, particularly when multiple parties are responsible for the various rights and facilities required by a broadcaster. The position of Indian cricket within the global game means that the impact on the BCCI is expected to be limited as Indian cricket will realistically remain a fundamental necessity for any broadcaster looking to cover world cricket. However, we may see broadcasters start to move away from the industry standard position when dealing with the BCCI or its licensees, by insisting that the applicable rate card be agreed and included at the contract stage.  

 

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About the Author

Tom Burrows

Tom Burrows

Tom is Head of Legal – Content at Perform Group. He is primarily responsible for supporting the content division of Perform's business, in particular advising on the global distribution of Perform’s digital sports media products. Prior to joining Perform, Tom was an Associate in the Sport Group at Sheridans.

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