Premiership problems 

2 January 2002

Despite what some media commentators will tell you, Pay Per View is not a new concept in the UK, with roots that date back to the 1960s when films and sport were made available to cable television subscribers.

However, it is certainly true that Pay Per View (PPV) has a far higher profile now than it has ever had before. Most multichannel platforms now offer at least some form of PPV, with the largest choice inevitably available to those with digital satellite, which offers a huge array of first-run movies, pop concerts, sport and soft porn to those willing to pay a one-off charge on top of their monthly subscription.

This season, the list of sports available on a PPV basis has been joined by football as the Premier League sought to prise even more money from supporters through a regular schedule of PPV games in addition to those already available to Sky Sports subscribers.

When the current TV contracts were being auctioned, the Premier League had three packages on offer – 66 live games, 40 PPV games and a highlights programme.

The rights to live games and the highlights package had been held by BSkyB and the BBC respectively ever since the formation of the Premier League in 1992. However, this time around there were new players all eager for a slice of the Premiership pie.

Despite competition from other pay-TV operators, Sky once again retained the rights to live games, but this time around the BBC was outbid by ITV’s huge bid for the highlights package.

Naturally, certain newspapers crowed about this, and predicted the end of “Match of the Day”, although soon after the Premiership deals were announced, the Football Association announced that the terrestrial rights to the FA Cup and England internationals had gone to the BBC.

With even ITV later admitting that viewers preferred live games to highlights, many fans would conclude that the BBC had got the better deal.

Imaginatively titled “The Premiership” ITV were determined to give their highlights programmes a primetime slot which was, at least according to presenter Des Lynam, “better for us, better for you.”

Yet within a couple of months, poor ratings meant that the programme was shifted to the same late night slot that Lynam had previously criticised when hosting “MOTD”. This lack of viewers was taken as proof that the usual ITV1 light entertainment dross was what was required at this time of the day, although the rubbish standard of “The Premiership” (Andy Townsend’s Tactics Truck anyone?) was equally to blame.

The Pay Per View contract was even more problematic. NTL had tabled a massive £328 million bid, which was wholly uneconomic given the company’s subscriber level. Problems also arose with the company’s plan to give subscribers free games in order to encourage them to take up future PPV games.

NTL eventually backed out, and the contract was sold for half the original amount with games available on all digital platforms, with Sky producing the programmes themselves.

Yet despite the intention of the Premier League to offer PPV games, the end result is closer to a second subscription package.

Sky’s pre-season promotion of the new service demonstrates this. The 40 live games were available on an individual basis for £8 a time, while Sky Sports subscribers could buy all forty for an additional payment of £60 on top of their subscription (non-subscribers had to pay £120 for the privilege).

Those signing up early got a further discount, and the other digital platforms all had similar deals, some of which undercut the Sky offer, but the “season ticket” clearly offered the best value for money.

The reasons are pretty obvious.

Firstly, the nature of the television contracts meant that the holder of the live rights had first and second choice of which games were broadcast each weekend.

Whilst there are conditions with regard to the number of times each club has been sold, most of the plum Premiership matches would be shown on Sky Sports rather than offered via Pay Per View.

Secondly, experience has shown that PPV works best for big one-offs such as world championship boxing and major WWF wrestling events.

But in the case of the Premiership, any game available on Pay Per View is only game out of the 38 each club plays over the course of the season.

While many people might be interested in watching – if not paying specifically for – matches involving the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool, the number of fans interested in, say, Bolton vs. Derby is going to be limited to fans of the two clubs concerned.

However, unless the PPV operator has the first pick every weekend, then the PPV game is often going to be of less appeal.

Yet if the PPV contract is ranked higher than the standard subscription one, this could seriously devalue the latter’s appeal to broadcasts and mean lower revenues for the rights holders.

From the supporter’s point of view, PPV can be a very unsatisfactory way of watching football. Matches can be highly unpredictable – how many times has a big game been hyped up, only to disappoint?

With a game on a subscription channel this isn’t too bad – there’s always the next game plus the rest of the programme schedule, but on a PPV game one or two poor games might well put off subscribers paying for future games.

Indeed, after a recent game against Everton, Southampton manager Gordon Strachan highlighted the fact that it had been on PPV and suggested that the game was so bad, everyone paying deserved to have his or her £8 refunded! Somehow it’s hard to see the broadcasters following up on this suggestion.

Of course, by the time the next television contract comes around, we could well see the PPV contract replaced by an electronic season ticket where fans can pay to watch all of their club’s matches on a dedicated channel.

This system would clearly favour the likes of Manchester United and, unless there was some distribution of revenue, could end up totally skewing the league in favour of three or four clubs, even though the Premier League’s Founders’ Document states that all clubs are considered equal.

Obviously, any form of electronic season tickets would be best suited on cable and satellite – even with games staggered over the weekend, as at present, DTT simply doesn’t have the capacity.

But regardless of this, the football authorities would do well to consider exactly what packages are on offer next time around, instead of simply relying on BSkyB. The row between the Football League and ITV Digital highlights the danger of relying too heavily on a single broadcaster.

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