Sports broadcasting rights still not resolved

The SABC and MultiChoice finally reached an agreement after denying millions televised access to PSL football games, but the threat of future blackouts remains.

The impasse between the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and major satellite service MultiChoice with regards to the purchase of the Premier Soccer League broadcasting rights might have been resolved, but the problem will persist without a long-term solution. 

As the saying goes, “when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers the most”, and millions of South Africans were left out in the cold during the protracted standoff over the broadcasting rights for domestic football. The beautiful game is the most loved and supported sport in the country and the majority of the millions who follow the game rely on the public broadcaster to keep up with football on radio and television. 

They couldn’t do that during the deadlock in the negotiations for the new broadcast rights deal, for which MultiChoice paid just more than R2 billion. The cash-strapped SABC pleaded poverty and, more importantly, said they would be operating at a heavy loss if they paid the R1.4 billion MultiChoice wanted in exchange for being able to show 144 matches a season for the next five years. Millions of South Africans couldn’t watch football during the impasse. 

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This brutal assault on the public persisted unmitigated by the broadcasting regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), before the impasse was resolved through government intervention. 

Though the state’s intervention via the ministries of sports and communications is commendable, the regulator needs to play its part if a long-lasting solution is to be reached. This problem is not only about capacity and finances, it is also about regulation.

SABC chief executive Madoda Mxakwe said at the Icasa hearings on sports broadcasting that there are no criteria for sublicensing and the SABC is exploited in the process. Broadcasters without radio platforms buy and sell these rights to the SABC, which is the only entity that broadcasts sport over the radio. 

Monopoly bad for sports

Between 2012 and 2017, the Competition Commission received a number of complaints about MultiChoice for “abuse of dominance”. Some of the complaints were that the pay television giant enjoyed exclusivity on sports rights through long-term contracts with rights holders, which pushed rival companies into the margins.

Other complaints were that MultiChoice abused “its dominance by charging a very high monthly subscription” for people to access live prime sports. No choice was given to people to choose channels. Sports channels that show prime sports are only available on the most expensive subscription option, which costs almost R1 000 a month.

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Though the Competition Commission decided against the prosecution of MultiChoice for “abuse of dominance” at the Competition Tribunal, it did find that the subscription television market was concentrated and difficult to access. 

It subsequently looked to Icasa for solutions when it recommended that there was a need for “targeted regulatory interventions to foster” change within sports broadcasting. The commission took the view that an inquiry by Icasa into subscription broadcasting was going to be more nuanced and broader in dealing with issues. 

Icasa did not respond when asked, as the regulatory authority, about the status of the inquiries and why it had not intervened during the SABC’s battle with MultiChoice. 

For a long-term solution, Icasa will have to be directly involved. Policy and regulatory intervention are necessary to ensure that sports broadcasting survives.

New player, same problems 

Pay television service Kwese TV was hailed as a “game-changer”, including by Icasa, after it was granted a free-to-air television licence. The aim was that once in full operation, the station would have five channels, including a 24-hour dedicated sports channel. This would have brought more competition to the sports broadcasting landscape while the SABC dragged its feet in the transition from analogue to digital, which would have eventually led to it launching a dedicated sports channel. 

But Kwese TV was forced to shut down its pay television service when it struggled to sign up enough subscribers to sustain its broadcast rights payments, pushing it solely into the free-to-air space. The SABC suffered because of the consequences of the decline of Kwese TV on the continent. 

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Last year, the public broadcaster acquired English Premier League (EPL) rights from the channel. This year, Kwese TV lost the rights and the SABC could not afford to buy the rights from the new rights holder.   

Big corporations invest in the game in the hope that their brands will reach millions. The PSL acknowledged this fact in its submissions to Icasa, when it said “sponsorship revenue is essentially driven by our ability to achieve a level of television exposure that will be attractive to our sponsors”. 

The SABC has wide reach. Aside from the SABC Sport television platform, radio stations such as Metro FM, Radio 2000, uMhlobo Wenene FM and Ukhozi FM, which alone boast almost 10 million listeners, reach a wide audience that would be beneficial to most brands. 

A prolonged impasse and the continued blackout of PSL games will not have been in their interests.

To avoid blackouts of PSL matches and sports in general from becoming a norm, the SABC must get its house in order, Icasa must act swiftly in dismantling the monopoly of MultiChoice and the government needs to end “the war with itself” and devise a proper funding model for the SABC. 

If they do this, millions of working-class South Africans will not be deprived of sports content simply because they cannot afford pay television.

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