When Five Channels Are Not Enough

When Five Channels Are Not Enough
(Credit: Workers Online - Labor Council of Australia)

Is Foxtel worth it for the sport? That depends on what you call sport, reports Peter Moss.

When I hooked up to pay tv in June - after years of resisting the lure - I was behaving just like the predictable consumer I like to deny I am.

The Foxtel marketers could have checked off my age, my income, my family situation, my interests and laid short odds about closing the deal. And they would have been dead right about the final trigger that overcame my ideological resistance - the promise of saturation coverage of my favourite sport.

I did not welcome the Murdoch/Packer takeover of AFL coverage which was announced earlier this year. But that was the event that delivered me to Foxtel, even though AFL coverage will not kick off until 2002.

Now, almost three months into our contract, could I recommend Foxtel, purely for the sport? The answer depends on what you call sport.

In Britain the dominance of soccer as a national sport - across regions, cultures and ages - guaranteed Murdoch success in pay tv from the day he bought exclusive rights to the Premier League.

But Australia has no equivalent. Australian rules football is the strongest winter sport, but large and important groups of fans prefer any of three competing codes. And cricket might be our biggest summer game - despite the indifference of almost anyone who didn't grow up playing it - but no pay tv provider has been able to win consistent dominance in cricket coverage. When Australia toured India, Foxtel had the rights. The Ashes tour is on Optus.

General sport media in Australia - like Channel Nine's now defunct Wide World of Sports or the magazine Inside Sport - have limited appeal because there is a limited audience for general sport. Archetypal events like the Olympics aside, the large majority of fans are interested only in their own specific sports.

You can check out Foxtel schedules on the internet and see how much, if any, of the coverage on the two general sport channels coincides with your interests. If rugby league, motorsport, golf, boxing and wrestling excite you, then you will like the look of Foxtel in 2001. My preferences run to AFL, tennis, cricket and the odd bit of horse racing. (Though I admit an embarrassing attraction to American wrestling, when stumbled upon.)

Foxtel's current AFL coverage is pathetic. They produce just one 30 minute program per week based around team selection on Thursday nights. Chaired by the talentless Steve Quartermaine, the panel's only bright light is rising coach Brian Royal.

Next year, Foxtel will become, with free-to-air Channels Nine and Ten, the official AFL broadcaster, showing three games live per week and the rest as replays. But there's more - a dedicated Foxtel channel will show nothing but AFL 24 hours per day all year round. The announcement did not make clear whether subscribers would be forced to pay extra to watch AFL, but my bet is that is exactly the plan. And with that we can expect a big influx of talent and resources.

They'll get my money.

But here's something to keep in mind next time you see the pay tv operators lobbying for a culling of the anti-siphoning list. When pay tv wins the rights to live coverage of an event, they often won't show it live in deference to the needs of free-to-air channels, and that applies even when the free-to-air broadcaster is not providing live coverage. The worst example I've come across is Foxtel's plans for Friday night AFL coverage from 2002. Channel Nine in Sydney and Brisbane will show a delayed replay of Friday night games from 11pm or later - a classic case where pay tv could have filled the gap, as Optus has until this year. But Foxtel will not broadcast the Friday games live because this would reduce the audience for Nine's replay.

Foxtel seems to have the tennis locked up. Since June I've enjoyed the French Open and Wimbledon - and the US Open starts at the end of this month. Live coverage with few advertisements and less bullshit from the commentators make Foxtel's tennis coverage a winner.

There's plenty of boxing on Foxtel - but if you want to watch Mundine or Tzuyu, it's overpriced pay-per-view. The regular coverage provides ammunition to those who would outlaw the sport - not on the grounds of safety, but of taste. The revolting sleaze of Jeff Fenech is omnipresent. The commentators build up c-grade Australian fighters as they pummel a seemingly endless line of desperate Philippinos who you imagine would never be allowed an upset.

It might be argued that American professional wrestling is officially no longer a sport since the promoters admitted the events are 100% staged. But wrestling remains the most popular sport among young US males and it's not hard to see why. As a child I was transfixed by Australia's World Championship Wrestling and its villains Tiger Singh and Killer Kowalski and the obese Haystacks Calhoun. Racing home from playing rugby league for Marist Brothers, I spent every Saturday for years watching grudge matches where the fighters might be tied together by a nine-foot leather strap and locked in a cage until one pleaded for mercy. Foxtel's wrestling coverage comprising Smackdown, Metal and Raw is War might have bigger budgets and more glamour, but it's the same gig.

Then there's Foxtel's Sky Racing channel, which broadcasts all TAB races with a brief betting update prior to each event. That's a big plus for punters who can't or won't spend their Saturday afternoons hanging around the local TAB.

Of course, Foxtel has plenty of non-sport channels - about 30. It's true they broadcast 90% crap, but the remaining 10% still leaves you with a lot more choice than free-to-air offers. The movies are the biggest winner at our place - this Saturday we can watch uninterrupted Hitchcock's Rear Window and Family Plot, followed by Vadim's Barbarella.

Pay tv is a bit like a mobile phone. You can get by without it for years, but once you sign up you're hooked for life.

Peter Moss is a Director of Lodestar Communications




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