I am pleased to open this debate which provides an opportunity for the House to consider the important issues contained in the Bill, which relate to the television coverage of cultural and sports events of major importance to the public. I am interested in the views of Senators on these issues.
Viewers in Ireland have traditionally enjoyed access to major events, sporting and otherwise, through the services of RTÉ. TV3 has begun to provide coverage of certain events and I hope it continues to expand its services. A substantial proportion of the population has had access to the services of UK terrestrial broadcasters, which have also sought to cater for wider audience tastes through the years. Given the demands on the radio frequency spectrum for broadcasting purposes, the number of broadcasters was necessarily restricted in the past. In this scenario, coverage of sporting events was restricted in that broadcasters who were attempting to cater for a wide range of tastes with one or two channels could only cover a limited range of events. However, in the past ten years the emergence of satellite delivered broadcasting services, operated on an almost entirely commercial basis, has changed the broadcasting map considerably.
Channels dedicated to sports events have emerged. It is undeniable that these channels have provided increased choice to those fans who can afford the price of such services. The potential of digital broadcasting to vastly increase the capacity for the provision of broadcasting channels has already begun to cause revolutionary change. Commercial services have discovered the importance of sport to their schedules. Indeed, the market for programming with popular appeal is becoming more and more intense leading in turn to increased costs in acquiring broadcast rights. In addition, some sports organisers and clubs have begun to explore news ways of providing coverage of their events beyond the confines of the stadium where such an event might take place.
The relationship between the broadcaster who provides essential technical expertise and the organisers of these events who may be able to acquire such expertise more easily now than in the past is changing. The area of broadcast rights is becoming increasingly complicated. There have been reports of disputes between BSkyB and the English Premier League about terrestrial versus satellite rights, digital as opposed to analogue rights and subscription as opposed to pay-per-view rights.
In recent years the pace of technological change in broadcasting has been breathtaking. The broadcasting scene in Ireland has changed radically over the past 30 years. As a society, Ireland has moved from a position where there was one national television broadcaster, RTÉ, showing programmes in black and white, to today's position where there are two television broadcasters, RTÉ and TV3, operating four television channels in addition to the large number of television channels broadcast from countries overseas which are available via cable systems and satellite dishes. The advent of digital television will lead to an even greater number of television channels becoming available over the next few years. Some of these will be available only on a subscription or pay-per-view basis.
The transmission of hundreds of channels by numerous broadcasters, some of which operate on a pan-European scale across national boundaries, has changed the broadcasting scene in Ireland forever. Some of these companies have financial resources which far exceed those available to our national broadcaster, RTÉ. The demand for quality popular programming is increasing and already competition for programmes that will attract significant audiences is fierce. Many sporting events on television already attract large audiences of committed followers and fans. Premier sporting events have an appeal which goes far beyond this and create a passionate interest on a national scale.
In today's world sport plays an important part of our lives and offers different levels of participation. Those of us not lucky enough to be able to participate in sport at the highest levels have been able to do so through coverage on television. Thus, major events become a shared experience at community, local and national level. Success, or simply a good performance, at a national or international level can be an important morale booster for a county or country. Indeed, without our sporting heroes life would be much poorer.
The growth in broadcasting channels has changed the relationship between sports organisations and broadcasters. In the past the number of broadcasters was relatively limited due to radio frequency availability. Accordingly the opportunity to provide coverage of sporting activities was limited if broadcasters wished to retain a wide audience. Indeed, some event organisers were not that enthusiastic about television coverage. It may seem amazing now, but there was a time when some sporting organisations did not want certain events to be covered live because they felt that it might reduce the number of people attending a particular event.
Nowadays if a sport wishes to attract some of the vast sponsorship on offer, it must be covered on television. Successful sportspersons become national and international television personalities through television advertising and participation in sports and sports related television programmes. The growth in the number of television services made possible by the technological development of television in Europe has had a significant effect on the revenues which organisers of major events can attract. Owners of the rights to television coverage of such events now find themselves in a seller's market where competition for the right to cover such events is intense. Broadcasters, particularly those who operate pay services, are keen to attract as many viewers as possible to sign up to their services. The influx of money from TV stations has revolutionised European sport. The sale of exclusive broadcasting rights has become sport's largest source of income ahead of ticket sales, particularly in respect of the Olympic Games and the World Cup soccer. Closely linked to the sale of television rights is the question of sponsorship. Sporting events with guaranteed TV coverage quickly find a backing from sponsors.
Developments in the coverage of club soccer matches in Britain and elsewhere in Europe over the past decade or so are worth consideration. With the coming on air of new broadcasters, such as B Sky B, there has been a big increase in the number of soccer matches shown live on television, particularly club matches. Before the existence of B Sky B it was rare to have live soccer matches on television, apart from international matches. The regular showing of live soccer matches on television, largely on a subscription or pay-per-view basis, has certainly raised the profile of soccer at an international level and given consumers a greater choice, even though they have to pay extra for seeing these games on a subscription or pay-per-view basis.
Football matches have become the most watched television programmes throughout Europe, demonstrating the importance of relations between sport and television. This has led in turn to the recent trend in soccer where large powerful audiovisual companies have sought to purchase football clubs. Senators will be aware that earlier this year the British Government blocked the purchase by an audiovisual company of Manchester United. However, other European Governments have adopted a different policy. In France, Canal Plus controls clubs not only in France but also elsewhere. European clubs such as Inter Milan and Paris St. Germain are backed by media groups. Since its attempt to become the majority shareholder in Manchester United was blocked, B Sky B has begun to secure small stakes in other clubs at a level that does not attract regulatory control.
Sports organisations realise the importance of their particular sport being shown on television. We know that television is a powerful medium to influence society. The showing of sports on television leads to a higher public profile for that sport, with the result that it attracts greater sponsorship.
Against this background of rapid change, the European Commission organised in May of this year the first European conference on sport. One of the main themes of the conference was relations between sport and television. On this matter the Commission identified a number of key issues for discussion and debate including television's role in broadcasting sport and its impact on the development of sport as a spectacle; the concept of solidarity applied to sports and relations between inter club competition and international competitions; individual or collective selling of television rights, the ownership of rights and the redistribution of money from television rights; conditions for awarding a contract, the lack of transparency and publicity, the duration of exclusive contracts, equal opportunity for operators; the problems inherent in the growing interpenetration of the sporting world and the audiovisual sector; the independence of journalists of a channel owning particular teams or clubs; the national lists of major sports events and the Television without Frontiers directive and the conditions for applying it to sports events; the citizen's right to information; debate over pay channels; and the survival of a sport linked to presence on television and ratings.
The main conclusions of the discussion on the theme of television and sport were as follows. On the growing interconnection between sport and television, participants agreed on the recognition of intensified relationships between broadcasters and sports organisations in a competitive market context, characterised by a growing number of distribution channels and a diversification of television services – thematic channels, pay television, pay-per-view – favoured by digital technology. This intensified relationship requires the sports organisations, broadcasters and public authorities to pay renewed attention to the need to preserve the values, the autonomy and specificity of sport.
Although the presence of sports on television is desired by the sports movement, in particular for promotional and educational reasons, the constraints of television broadcasting in an ever competitive environment may negatively affect the very nature of sport disciplines and bring about changes in the organisation of sports activities.
The integrity and autonomy of sport must be preserved and there must not be any confusion of roles between broadcasters and the sport movement nor must the media exercise control directly – for example by acquiring ownerships of clubs – or indirectly, on the organisation and schedules of sports competitions. In this connection, concern or even outright opposition was expressed by some participants against the acquisition of sports clubs by broadcasters.
The vast majority of those who contributed on the theme of the collective sale of rights and the redistribution of revenues considered that the interests of sport are best served by a system of collective sale of rights, in particular by federations. This collective sale system is deemed to be a necessary condition for the functioning of redistribution and solidarity mechanisms that must characterise European sport. Redistribution of revenues within each discipline should be in favour of less wealthy clubs and amateur clubs.
On the issues of duration of exclusive broadcasting rights to sports competitions, the majority of participants, while accepting the need for limiting duration for obvious competition related reasons, considered that such duration must be sufficient, in particular in respect of the investment needed for producing and programming such events. The participants believed that it was not desirable to have a single rule applying to all sports disciplines and that the maximum duration must be adapted to the characteristics of each discipline, taking into acount the diversity of sport and the impact on the sports rights market.
The conference recognised the importance of measures aimed at ensuring access by the public to information on sports events of major importance for society, taking into account the influence exercised by such events on sport practice and social cohesion. In this respect, the necessity to strike a balance between the protection of public interests and the development needs of clubs and federations was underlined. The participants expressed their desire to take forward the dialogue between the sport movement and broadcasters, together with the representatives of EU member states and the European Commission.
The Commission will prepare a report for the European Council meeting in Helsinki in December 1999. The Commission believes that the report offers a unique opportunity for putting the relationship between sport and the European Union on a satisfactory footing. From the foregoing, Senators will appreciate the growing complexity of sports administration and the many issued raised by the question of television coverage.
We are aware that today money plays an ever increasing role in sport. To be successful in sport means not only commitment and dedication by a team or an individual but also in most cases significant financial resources. The sale by event organisers to broadcasters of the rights to broadcast sports events such as the Olympic Games or the World Cup soccer matches involves billions of dollars worth of business. These events attract huge audiences across all continents. This is reflected in the huge amounts of money broadcasters are prepared to pay for the rights to transmit sports events. Most broadcasters today operate in the private sector. Some of them operate on a global scale. They are answerable not to governments or to the general public but to their shareholders. I fully recognise that sports organisers wish to generate the maximum amount of income from the sale of broadcast rights to the events which they organise. This income is vital to event organisers and can be used, for example, to recruit new talent, undertake improvements to facilities at sports grounds such as new stands or to improve coaching and training facilities, etc.
Arising from these changes there is concern, not just in Ireland but throughout the European Union, that coverage of certain major events, in particular sports events, will migrate from free television, i.e. without payment by the viewers to a broadcaster, to a situation where these events will only be seen on a subscription or pay-per-view channel. There is the danger that, if market forces are left to themselves without some level of co-ordinated control by the member states of the European Union, a small number of companies will dominate the market for major sports and cultural events that are of interest to the general public leading to restrictions on access to television coverage of such events on those who cannot afford to pay.
These concerns are justified. Access to premier events is always limited. Up to now, television has provided a means to participate in such events to everyone, regardless of their economic circumstances. The shared experience of following the exploits of a national team or an individual representing our community is an important element of our society and our culture. It must be realised that such events are more than just another commodity to be bought and exploited by the highest bidder. Such events have a value that goes beyond normal commercial considerations. In the same way as certain buildings or archaeological sites are protected, there is a strong public interest in ensuring continued maximum access to television coverage of certain significant events.
The concerns that such events would no longer be available to broadcasters who provide free to air television coverage led to the insertion by the European Union of a new specific measure in the Television without Frontiers Directive, which was amended in 1977. Under Article 3a of the amended directive, each member state may take measures in accordance with Community law to ensure that broadcasters under its jurisdiction do not broadcast on an exclusive basis events which are regarded by that member state as being of major importance for society in such a way as to deprive a substantial proportion of the public in that member state of the possibility of following such eventsvia live coverage or deferred coverage on free television.
Member states may designate events which they consider to be of major importance to society and notify the European Commission accordingly. Within a period of three months from the notification, the Commission shall verify that the measures are compatible with Community law and communicate them to the other member states. Once the Commission has verified the measures, other member states must recognise the lists of designated events drawn up by other member states and ensure that no broadcaster under its jurisdiction operates in such a way as to deprive a substantial proportion of the population of other member states seeing events which those other member states have designated on free television.
Three member states have designated events and concluded the notification process with the Commission. These member states are Denmark, Germany and Italy. Major international sporting events such as the Olympic Games and the World Cup soccer final have been designated by these three countries.
The philosophy behind the Bill is to implement Article 3a of the Television without Frontiers Directive. I wish to assure event organisers that this Bill does not propose to interfere on a broad scale with the commercial marketing of sports events, to distort competition or to interfere to an undue extent with the rights of event organisers to sell the commercial rights to sports events. What is required is a balance between the rights of event organisers to sell the broadcast rights to sports events and the rights of the general public to continue to see major sports events on free television or near universal coverage. It must be recognised that the citizen has rights too and these must be safeguarded.
This Bill, when enacted, will give me the power to draw up a list of designated events following consultation with the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation. Contacts have been made by officials of my Department with the Department of Tourism, Sport and Recreation in this matter. In deciding which event should be designated, the Bill stipulates certain criteria which must be taken into account, that is, the extent to which the event has a special general resonance for the people of Ireland and the extent to which the event has a generally recognised distinct cultural importance for the people of Ireland.
The Bill does not identify what particular events will be designated by me under ministerial order. Once the Bill is enacted a wide ranging consultation process will be undertaken to ascertain the views of event organisers, broadcasters under the jurisdiction of the State and the public before any order is made by me. While some sports events readily spring to mind I intend to enter the consultation process with an open mind and without prejudice to any particular sport.
Section 1 deals with definitions. The most significant definitions are "near universal coverage", "qualifying broadcaster" and "free television service". Until 31 December 2001, a broadcaster in the State who provides a free television service with 85 per cent coverage of the population will be considered as a "qualifying broadcaster" under the Bill. Thereafter a "qualifying broadcaster" will be a broadcaster who provides near universal coverage as defined in the Bill. "Near universal coverage" is defined as a free television service which is available to 95 per cent of the population. However, where, at any time, only two broadcasters are capable of providing such coverage, a broadcaster who provides 90 per cent coverage will be considered to be providing "near universal coverage". "Free television service" is defined as a television service, which is free at the point of reception.
Section 2 provides that I may, following consultation with the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, by order designate events as events of major importance to society. In drawing up the list of designated events, I am required to take certain criteria into account. Subsection (1)(a) provides that I will have the basic power of designating certain events as events of major importance to society. Broadcasters who are qualifying broadcasters will have the right to coverage of such events. Subsection (1)(b) provides that when exercising the power to designate events I will determine whether such events should be available on free television on a live, deferred or both live and deferred basis and whether the event should be available in its entirety or on a partial basis. This enables me to take account of situations where a designated event takes place in a different time zone or where a number of different events take place at the same time.
Subsection (2) requires me to have regard to all the circumstances and, in particular, to certain criteria when designating an event under subsection (1). I must have regard to the extent to which the event in question has a special general resonance and a generally recognised distinct cultural importance for the people of Ireland. This is to provide that only events of an outstanding nature will be designated. Subsection (3) provides that in order to determine whether these criteria have been met, I may take into account whether the event involves participation by a national or non-national team or by Irish persons. Past practice with regard to television coverage of the event or similar events may also be taken into account.
Subsection (4) provides for the matters to be considered by me in making a determination as to whether a designated event should be available on free television on a live or deferred basis or in whole or in partial form. Subsection (5) provides that I may by order revoke or amend an order under this section. Subsection (6) provides that I must consult the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation before making, amending or revoking an order under this section. Subsection (7) provides that an order under this section shall be a positive order, that is, that the order shall not come into force until a resolution approving the draft of the order has been passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas.
Section 3 provides that before making an order I shall consult with the organisers of events and with broadcasters under the jurisdiction of the State, publish a notice of the event I intend to designate in at least one national newspaper circulating in the State and invite comments on the intended designation from members of the public. Subsection (2) provides that where it is not possible to establish the identify of the organiser of an event or if an organiser or broadcaster fails to respond to efforts to consult, I am not precluded from proceeding to make an order under section 2.
Section 4(1) provides that where a broadcaster under the jurisdiction of the State who is not a qualifying broadcaster acquires exclusive rights to broadcast a designated event, that broadcaster shall not broadcast the event unless the event has been made available to a qualifying broadcaster, in accordance with the order under section 2, on request and on the payment of reasonable market rates by the qualifying broadcaster. Subsection (2) provides that where a qualifying broadcaster acquires the right to broadcast a designated event, the qualifying broadcaster shall broadcast the event on a free television service providing near universal coverage.
Section 5 transposes the mandatory provisions of Article 3a of the Television without Frontiers directive to ensure no broadcaster in our jurisdiction operates in such a way as to deprive a substantial proportion of the population in another member state of the opportunity of following events designated by that member state on free television.
Section 6 provides that where a broadcaster alleges that an activity or conduct prohibited by section 4 or 5 is being, has been or is about to be carried out by one or more broadcasters the broadcaster shall be entitled to apply to the High Court for civil remedies such as a restraining order or damages from another broadcaster.
Section 7 provides that if broadcasters are unable to agree on what constitutes reasonable market rates with respect to television coverage of an event either of the broadcasters may apply to the High Court for an order determining reasonable market rates for an event. Section 8 contains the Short Title to the Bill.
I intend that the consultation process set out in the Bill will be meaningful. I also take the opportunity to express my appreciation of event organisers and sports administrators. They are the inheritors of a long tradition of service to their sporting disciplines, to those who participate and to the general public. Theirs is an increasingly dif ficult task which requires them to establish a balance between the interests of their sports, their participants and the public interest in an increasingly complex world. I do not want to give the impression that I consider that they are about to sell the rights to their events without any concern for that public interest. When the Bill is enacted I will embark on the consultation process provided for with respect for their position and expertise.
While I have dwelt at length on the sporting dimensions to the Bill, it will also allow the listing of other events that are deemed important to society and meet the criteria of having a special resonance for the people and having a generally recognised distinct cultural importance for them. There is widespread interest among the people that certain events which are of such importance to our way of life and culture must continue to be seen on free television on near universal coverage. Widespread enjoyment of such events on free terrestrial television is a force for cohesion in society. I have no doubt that the people will welcome and support the provisions of the Bill.
I am sure Senators will agree that, given the important role sport plays in the life of our country, it is essential that sports events of major importance to society are accessible to the widest possible number of viewers via free television. Access to such events should not be restricted only to those who can affort to pay the rates demanded by subscription or pay-per-view television services.
I commend the Bill to the Seanad.