Keep Six Nations games on free-to-air, says Cowen
TAOISEACH Brian Cowen wants Six Nations matches to remain free to view on terrestrial television channels in Ireland.
Mr Cowen's comments come after a row erupted over the suggestion by Environment Minister Eamon Ryan that Heineken Cup games should be free to watch.
Yesterday, Sky bosses met Mr Ryan for an hour in Government Buildings to discuss the divisive proposals. Sources close to those talks said there had been a "full airing of the issues".
Both Sky and the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU), who are resolutely opposed to the Mr Ryan's plans, are expected to make submissions to ahead of a July 4 deadline.
The IRFU claim that wrestling the matches off the sports channels will cost it €12m and cause severe financial turmoil for the professional sport. Rugby fans can currently view Six Nations matches for free on RTE, without having to pay any subscription fees to satellite broadcasters.
However, Heineken Cup matches are exclusive to Sky Sports -- meaning fans have to pay for the broadcast or go to the pub to watch the game. The Six Nations matches are much more lucrative for sports channels. However, RTE's broadcasting rights over the tournament expire in 2013.
"What we have free to air, I'd like to see retained. Obviously, we want to make sure that any developments in this area are consistent with the development of the sports that are doing so well for us internationally at the moment," Mr Cowen said.
A "common-sense" decision can be found to the whole issue during the ongoing consultation process, the Taoiseach added.
His backing for the Six Nations matches may signal room for manoeuvre in future negotiations on the proposals to also make Heineken Cup matches free.
The assertion by the IRFU that Mr Ryan's ideas are "absolutely cracked" and based on a "hunch" have backfired as Mr Ryan has drawn support among Fianna Fail backbenchers. Transport Minister Noel Dempsey, who once served as communications minister and drew up free-to-air lists, said that arguments could never be won by "beating a person around the head".
The IRFU has a very strong and legitimate case that has been presented before, Mr Dempsey said.
Any arguments for or against the free-to-air proposals should be done in a "very civilised manner", he added.
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said the current system of broadcasting rugby matches had worked "exceptionally well".
"If an income stream can be maintained and free to air can be done at the same time, great.
"But I think there needs to be some deeper analysis of what is going on here because of the way this is structured in the first place in terms of the Six Nations and the other countries who might have a very different agenda to Ireland," he said.
Fine Gael communications spokesman Simon Coveney asked why Mr Ryan was trying to fix something that isn't broken. And he accused the minister of "wading" into the controversy without having done his homework or gaining an appreciation of the funding process for Irish rugby.