THAT'S THE LAW: Big news for cricket fans

Cultural Touchstone: Richie Benaud at the SCG to help Channel Nine promote its coverage of cricket over the summer.
Cultural Touchstone: Richie Benaud at the SCG to help Channel Nine promote its coverage of cricket over the summer.

Huge news broke for cricket fans across Australia this week.  No, it's not yet more to do with #tampergate, but the announcement about the television broadcast rights for cricket in Australia.For many, the writer included, watching cricket has meant watching on Channel Nine and listening to their iconic broadcast since before birth. The Nine commentary team has become a cultural touchstone, although arguably due as much to the work of Billy Birmingham as for the commentators themselves. It has been said that the Australian captain gets measured for his "cream, off-white, white, ivory and beige" Nine blazer at the same time as his official team one.

All of this is soon to be no longer with the announcement that the rights have been bought (for an eye watering sum) by a joint bid comprised of Foxtel and Channel Seven from the 2018/2019 season onwards. Whilst it's going to interesting to see what these new rights holders do differently with their coverage, perhaps more interesting is the accessibility of cricket in general for a large part of the population.

Whilst test matches will be simulcast on Seven and Foxtel, all international limited overs cricket (both T20 and 50 overs) will only be available on Foxtel, and Foxtel is only currently subscribed to by about a third of the population.

Cricket is one of the sports that is currently on what's known as the "anti-siphoning" list.  This list is much quoted, but perhaps little understood.  It is made up of a legislative instrument known as the "Broadcasting Services (Events) Notice (No. 1) 2010".  The power to issue this document is given by section 115 of the Broadcasting Services Act.

The Minister for Communication is given the power to designate events "the televising of which should, in the opinion of the Minister, be available free to the general public".  Events currently on the list include both the summer and winter Olympics, all AFL and NRL games, the Melbourne Cup, Rugby Union tests featuring the Wallabies in Australia, New Zealand or in World Cup, the Australian Open Tennis, and Bathurst amongst many others.

Nine's coverage of the Australia v New Zealand cricket test enabled it to eclipse its usually more popular rival, Seven. Photo: Getty Images

Nine's coverage of the Australia v New Zealand cricket test enabled it to eclipse its usually more popular rival, Seven. Photo: Getty Images

For cricket all tests involving Australia in Australia, Ashes tests in the UK, every one day and T20 game in Australia involving Australia and all world cup games involving Australia are on the list.

So if these are all on the list then how can it be Foxtel can have the exclusive rights to them from next season onwards?

The idea is not that free to air broadcasters must show the event, but that they must be given the opportunity to acquire the rights.  For example, an event is taken to come off the list automatically "4,368 hours before the start of the event" unless the Minister keeps it on there. The Minister can only do that if "satisfied that at least one commercial television broadcasting licensee or national broadcaster has not had a reasonable opportunity to acquire the right to televise the event concerned".

The section also allows the Minister to remove an event from the list, with the example given of one time when that might occur as "The national broadcasters and commercial television broadcasting licensees have had a real opportunity to acquire the right to televise an event, but none of them has acquired the right within a reasonable time. The Minister is of the opinion that removing the event from the notice is likely to have the effect that the event will be televised to a greater extent than if it remained on the notice."

When quizzed on this aspect of the deal James Sutherland (Cricket Australia's CEO) emphasised that all the regulatory steps had been met and that more cricket would be seen on free to air television than ever before.  Whilst we aren't privy to the mechanics of the deal, one suspects section 115 of the Broadcasting Act is responsible for that particular emphasis. So there it is, a change that meant I could talk about cricket and the law at the same time, what a bonus! 

It will be very different and there will no doubt be lots of cricket fans disgruntled at the thought of having to get Foxtel to watch all the games.  To those people I would say, cheer up, at least we won't have to put up with Mark Nicholas anymore!

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