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Friday, August 14, 2009

New Broadcast Rights Paradigm?

Not that it would ever happen, but it's an interesting thought. A T&FN message board poster, responding to the criticism that Universal Sports' World Championships webcast won't be available outside the USA:
Well I don’t think this is really something to criticize Universal/NBC about. They’re simply doing what they have to do. Even if they wanted their programming to be available outside the USA, doing so would infringe upon the broadcast rights that somebody else paid for. I imagine that Universal would be perfectly happy for Jamaicans to be able to view their webcasts. But either someone in Jamaica paid for exclusive broadcast rights, or (perhaps more likely) the exclusive rights for broadcast in Jamaica were offered, but went unpurchased, and the originator (IAAF or meet organizer) still doesn’t want to give them away for free.

Nevertheless, I do feel a bit of disappointment that the IAAF continues to sell the broadcast rights based on the now rather outdated geographical model. Four years ago, when WCSN (which has since morphed into Universal Sports) sprung out of nowhere to stream the Helsinki WC, I thought that maybe we were seeing the beginning of the end for geographic broadcast rights. But obviously I was wrong.

Years ago, when the only way for anyone to receive a TV signal was through an antenna, selling broadcast rights on a geographic basis made perfect sense. The signals had to come from a TV transmitter, and transmitters all have a geographically limited range. But today, anybody with a computer and an internet connection can view a video stream originating from anywhere on the planet… unless it’s artificially blocked by some sort of authoritarian regime. There’s no technical reason at all why someone in Russia – to choose a random example – couldn’t view a video stream originating in Germany or the USA. But the rights are still being sold geographically, simply because that’s what everyone is used to, and that’s how all the existing contracts are structured.

In the USA we don’t get much T&F coverage on TV, and what we do get is watered-down pabulum intended to be attractive to non-fans. That’s because there is simply not a high enough concentration of T&F fans in America to make broadcasting the sport nationally worthwhile on a regular basis. But there are certainly enough English-speaking fans worldwide to make an attractive target-audience if you don’t have to worry about gathering them all into one place.

Instead of selling the rights for broadcast into specific geographic areas, I would much prefer to see the IAAF selling worldwide rights to “broadcast” in specific languages. The English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Japanese and Chinese rights could all be sold separately – with the proviso that the stream must be made available worldwide. Whoever purchased the English-language rights would be free to sub-license those rights to over-the-air media like NBC, the BBC and CBC, who would be free to substitute their own commentary and insert their own advertisements. But since none of them would have geographic “exclusivity” in their contracts, none would have any right to complain about the baseline English-language stream still being available to residents of their various regions.
This is a good idea not only for track & field, but other truly global sports such as futbol, etc.

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