Thursday 18 July 2019

Line the coffers, lose the audience as Minister White considers Six Nations' free-to-air status

High stakes all round as Minister White considers free-to-air

Alex White: 'Should the Six Nations be free to air? I think there's a strong case for it but let's see how the process unfolds'
Alex White: 'Should the Six Nations be free to air? I think there's a strong case for it but let's see how the process unfolds'
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

On the morning of the Wales versus Ireland game in Cardiff last month we rang John Feehan, CEO of the Six Nations, on the issue of timing. Specifically the fairness, or otherwise, of staggering the kick-offs on the last day when there is every chance of a tie at the top of the table, with points difference then becoming the key criterion.

We didn't expect him to dwell too long on the rights or wrongs of a tournament finale that was heading for a thrilling finish - you couldn't have scripted how it turned out - but nor did we expect him to go all biblical on us.

"The avowed aim here is to spread the word and have as many as possible watch the Championship," he said. "If you play at the same time you minimise not maximise your audience, which across the three games will be up to 25 million people. If you were to schedule those games simultaneously you would halve that number.

"It's not just about the money, but about access. We get many of what you would call occasional viewers to the Six Nations - it's not just the diehards. So this is about reaching out and converting people. If you were to go back to simultaneous kick-offs you'd have far less money, which would have a knock-on effect on the unions and how they can develop the game - especially Ireland, who wouldn't have the resources of England and France. To reduce the number of people who can watch the Championship would be patently stupid."

Indeed. As he was yakking away it was impossible not to drift off towards the next issue on the agenda: the forthcoming television deal, to which Feehan had already alluded a few weeks previously when he fired a shot across the bows of the BBC, saying that terrestrial broadcasters had to be "kept honest."

Fair enough. Just because you have the biggest car park doesn't mean you shouldn't pay to maintain it. And, as Feehan reiterated on the morning of the Wales game, terrestrial TV evidently has the largest patch of land. So if you're in the business of doing all the things he spoke about - spreading the message and drawing in the casual fan - then you need the kind of space afforded only by free-to-air. But it can't be a giveaway.

The issue of who should broadcast the Six Nations and how much they should pay for it is coming to a head now. Last week the IRFU made contact with the office of Alex White, Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, with a view to having their case heard. According to the man himself, that meeting will happen "after Easter."

Under the 2009 Broadcasting Act, the department is required every three years to review the list of events deemed to be of major importance to society, ie those to be parked on terrestrial TV, where at least 90 per cent of the population has access to them, either through live or deferred broadcast. Why this has to be visited every three years seems excessive, but in any case the Six Nations is currently in Category B on that list, where at a minimum coverage must be provided on a deferred basis.

This arrangement doesn't preclude the Six Nations from getting into bed with the satellites - it just keeps the door open to the terrestrials. And to date the Championship organisers have been happy for it to remain that way. Moving it to Category A, however, would shift the goalposts: live broadcast only by a terrestrial operator.

For the IRFU, the issue is about keeping it where it is. They want the freedom to run their own affairs. They are not quite at panic stations down in Lansdowne Road but they are busy conducting regular safety drills nonetheless. Like most of us, they are worried about where the next pay cheque is coming from. In order to keep the family fed and watered you have to keep the relations onside. In this case that means their cousins around the Six Nations table.

Currently for the union that tournament yields a whopping €14m, from the centralised TV pot. It's a collective gig because notionally all are equal partners and the TV deal is done on that basis. Ideally each partner should come to the table with no baggage, such as a Government designation that in their territory the rights can only be sold to a terrestrial operator. France, for example, have what you might call hand luggage: in that territory the games have to be free to air, but at least there is a genuine contest between terrestrial stations to get that business.

You wouldn't say the same in Ireland. Historically RTE have fetched up with loose change. With no one else bidding they would walk off with the goodies, though in fairness to them they have made a decent fist of packaging them for the licence payers. The IRFU have the hump with RTE over this practice, which they see as arrogant. This is a bit rich from an organisation that grew up with the same attitude front and centre.

RTE, meantime, plead inability to pay. When the recession reached our shores in 2008, the tsunami that washed over its sports department carried away the capacity to bid large for tournament rights. Ever since, they have listened nervously to the mood music in the department to see if they would continue to be protected by legislation.

For Minister White, on the other hand, the issue is about not getting caught with his keks down. He doesn't want to be the man who allowed a crown jewel to be taken away for private viewing only by those who subscribe to Sky or BT Sport. Speaking on Newstalk's Pat Kenny show on Friday, he took the opportunity to let us know which way he's leaning.

"Does the event (the Six Nations) have a national, cultural resonance, is it something that Irish people regard as being a national sport?" he asked. "And I mean manifestly it is. So I would call that a prima facie case for doing it (listing it Category A), but I have to talk to the sporting bodies . . . I know there are other issues involved, and I'll do that . . . Should the Six Nations be free to air? I think there's a strong case for it but let's see how the process unfolds."

You'd imagine he already has a pretty clear vision of what the IRFU will say to him, for they said much the same thing back in 2010 when then Minister Eamon Ryan was on the case. And the message is this: if you list the Six Nations in Category A then you hobble us going to the negotiation table; you increase the chance of the big guns England and France scuppering the collective arrangement to do bigger, better deals for themselves; you take the food out of the mouths of the players who have made us one of the top-ranked nations in the rugby world.

The strength of their 'we don't want to upset the apple cart' argument is questionable, however. The shape of the rugby world has changed dramatically in the last 12 months, with the clubs wiping the unions' eyes in the way they took over the second tier of European rugby. If England and/or France want to do a runner then they will find a way, regardless of Government legislation in Ireland.

As things stand, they don't need to go anywhere. Nor will they, for John Feehan is in the enviable position of having a uniquely healthy terrestrial contingent now that ITV are free of football's Champions League, and the BBC, having lost the British Open to Sky, should be focused on retaining the Six Nations. Let them at it.

As for Minister White, he should consider this. As wingman in the Department of Health two years ago, he was a proponent of removing alcohol sponsorship from sport. It's a debate worth having, so long as you are prepared to fill the financial hole left by the brewers and distillers if they are sent packing.

So too in rugby: if he restricts the TV market in the Six Nations, and the backside then falls out of the IRFU's balance sheet, he'd better have a chequebook ready to make good the loss. Otherwise the political fallout will be every bit as painful as putting rugby on pay TV. Already we can hear him dialling the same digits we did on the morning of the Wales game, and asking John Feehan the key question: is it safe to leave well enough alone?

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