Ofcom summons up courage to tackle BSkyB

March 31, 2010

steve_barnett- Steven Barnett is professor of communications at the University of Westminster, and a writer and commentator on broadcasting issues.  His first book, published in 1990, was on the relationship between television and sport. The opinions expressed are his own.-

Today is a historic day for British television: the first time in its brief six-year history that the supposedly uber powerful Ofcom has been prepared to flex its muscles to tackle the brute force of BSkyB’s overwhelming dominance in pay television.

It is an issue that has blighted the television industry for years, disadvantaged consumers, put companies out of business, and sent competitors, regulators and politicians running for cover.

Finally, after three years of exhaustive analysis, the regulator has had enough: BSkyB has been ordered to lower the prices at which it sells its premium rate channels to other platform operators such as Virgin and BT.

Consumers may even be able to buy sports and movie channels without being forced to pay for a bundle of countless other unwanted channels.

We can now expect a blaze of carefully orchestrated outrage not just from the hugely influential head of BSkyB itself, James Murdoch, but from its formidable number of friends and allies. For the power and influence which this single corporation exerts on British public and political life is quite extraordinary.

We have already heard the first rumblings from powerful sports bodies, threatening legal action and warning of “serious consequences” for sport.

There will be excoriating editorials in the Murdoch-owned papers denouncing the meddling bureaucrats of this unelected quango. There will be politicians who will be cornered in their constituencies by the incompetent chairmen of tottering football clubs, desperate to convey the vital importance of BSkyB’s cash to saving their personal fiefdoms.

And there will be other politicians – I know this because some have told me – simply too anxious about the sheer muscle of this unrestrained, unaccountable monolith to want to speak out against its trampling of the basic principles of fair trading.

Hopefully, the less suggestible legislators and the non-Murdoch press will take a closer look at the PR blather.

Take, for example, the oft-repeated claims of the England and Wales Cricket Board that grassroots women’s cricket is now thriving thanks to Sky’s injection of cash.

Official figures from Sport England show a different story: according to its representative survey of over 300,000 people, the number of women participating in cricket in the last year has actually gone down.

Then there’s the unspoken £38 million of (taxpayers’) cash which Sport England agreed to invest in English cricket last year. And the millions invested by local authorities in playing fields and leisure centres around the country.

Can it possibly be right that the body charged with looking after our national sport now connives shamelessly in a public relations exercise designed to ensure that most TV viewers are deprived of its most popular matches?

In Australia, you would be roasted on a barbecue for less. In the UK, we shrug.

There are similar tales of exaggerated woe being bandied around by other sports bodies in hock to BSkyB’s cash.

The myth that Sky and only Sky can bankroll our sporting heritage is not only wrong but fundamentally dangerous. We desperately need more plurality in the sports rights market for the sake of British sport as well as UK consumers.

This, of course, is just the beginning.

BSkyB demonstrated after its November 2006 raid on ITV’s shares that it will exhaust every conceivable legal and constitutional loophole to protect its position.

It took more than three years, including one of the most damning reports that can ever have emerged from the Competition Appeals Tribunal (CAT), to prise that shareholding from Sky’s grasp. The company has already announced that it will be taking this matter to the CAT.

Greg Dyke once likened BSkyB to a 500-pound gorilla, but that doesn’t do justice to the combination of brute force, intimidation and sheer ruthlessness.

Ofcom has now summoned up the courage to hurl the first pebble at this Goliath whose stranglehold on our major sports has been amply demonstrated by their immediate threats of legal action to protect Sky’s monopoly and their own rights fees.

But despite these cries of faux outrage, this could be the beginning of a serious attempt to bring the gorilla to heel – if other key stakeholders are prepared to pull their weight.

Politicians should now be supporting Ofcom and speaking out for the public interest; competitors like Virgin and BT need to mount their own counter-offensives; both Labour and Conservative front benches need to resist their natural inclination to kowtow to the Murdoch dynasty; media lawyers, civil society groups, the few sports bodies whose loyalty has not yet been bought and the  consumer groups who have been unaccountably quiet all need to add their weight to Ofcom’s long overdue regulatory initiative.

This is not just a technical competition issue, but a fundamental question of who controls the television market-place and British sport.

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