By Dom Serafini

This is going to be an “event” year for television, particularly in the U.S., and as we know, television luves big events. Indeed, this year promises — if not guarantees —  that audiences will return to the old-fashioned boob-tube or the not-so-idiot box after all. The questions now are: Will broadcasters take advantage of this? Or, better yet, can they?

The year opened with the Golden Globe Awards in mid-January, followed by February’s Grammys. The Super Bowl also upped the ante in early February, viewed by a record 106 million people who were not necessarily American football fans (myself being an example of such). The Vancouver, Canada, Winter Olympics continued in February, while in Italy the Sanremo Music Festival garnered a record TV viewership with its line-up of American guests. Also consider the NBA’s All-Star basketball game and the Daytona 500, which both aired in mid February.

The Academy’s Oscar Awards, held in early March, brought the TV event back to the international scene (U.S. ratings were up 14 percent compared to 2009), airing after the Winter Olympics. Other world events will be taking place in May, such as UEFA football Championship League. In June and July, the biggest event of all, the World Football Cup in South Africa hits screens. Also in May, television in France will feature its Cannes Film Festival, while in October the big event action returns to the U.S. with baseball’s World Series.

Unfortunately, not all broadcasters will be making money from these big events. NBC, for example, is reported to have lost $250 million on the Winter Games, because in 2003 it agreed to pay $820 million for the U.S. broadcast rights, 33 percent more than it paid in 2004 for the 2006 Games in Turin.

In Italy, in order to pay guest appearance fees for the popular Sanremo Music Awards, which recorded an average audience of 11.3 million viewers (a 50.74 percent share), the broadcaster had to contemplate closing five foreign offices. The cumulative cost of operating those offices for one year is almost comparable to the fee for one major guest appearance (like Jennifer Lopez).

But financial loss or gain is not the issue here, since politicians, financiers and regulators allowed the creation of larger and fewer media conglomerates, they now have to pick on someone their own size. When the industry comprised smaller television groups, bids were confined to the more manageable few million dollars, offering fewer risks and more opportunities to generate large profits.
Today, the key issue concerning big television events is the risk that middle and lower social strata will be progressively excluded from enjoying such programming, due to aggressive competition from richer pay-TV services.
For this reason, a U.K. government-appointed panel recommended that events of  “national resonance” — such as the British Open, Wimbledon and FIFA World Cup qualifiers — should be “freely available to the widest possible audience,” meaning via over-the-air free broadcast television. This is an issue now facing several countries, including Italy, Germany and Australia.

It is possible that Germany’s Kirch Group’s insistence on showing popular football matches on pay-TV services contributed to the group’s demise. Reportedly, 85 percent of Germans want free access to important football matches, which prompted the governments of 16 German states to implement a “national protection list” of important sporting events that must remain on free TV.
This means that, after broadcasters lobbied so hard to have governments off their backs, they’re now begging for government protection from richer-than-thou pay-TV competitors. But all bets seem to be in the FTA’s favor. In addition to avoiding political backlash, all major entertainment events depend on a broad public support for their popularity, because on a pay-TV platform, rather than millions of households watching at an event, interested parties can only count on thousands.

Big events are important to broadcast television’s survival, and free TV station owners should capitalize on the fact that public opinion is in their favor. Unfortunately, many free over-the-air broadcasters also operate pay-TV services, which if not an outright conflict of interest, is certainly a difficult position to be in.

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