Sky TV became the big beast of pay TV by exclusively screening the country's most popular sports live for paying subscribers. This week it suddenly announced top rugby, netball and league will soon screen in the weekends free-to-air as well on one of its own channels. Why?
Former New Zealand wicketkeeper-turned-commentator Ian Smith made the news briefly last month for an offhand comment on Australian TV.
Asked to comment on TVNZ footage of a stunning catch in a Super Smash T20 game in Wellington, Smith said the catch was great but the commentary was “shithouse.”
Few cricket fans here would have seen that coverage of the lunch break in the first test between West Indies and Australia - and they would have had to have been listening closely to have caught Smith’s insult.
But TVNZ - which acquired broadcasting rights to domestic and international cricket last year following the closure of Spark Sport - did not let it go.
”New Zealanders have strong opinions about the commentary and there is no team that will please every viewer – particularly when that viewing audience is over a million,” a spokesperson said.
A million for a Firebirds 20/20 game at the Basin Reserve live on TVNZ Duke? It turned out the figure is a cumulative one for Black Caps’ games since TVNZ acquired the broadcast rights.
But NZ Cricket boss Scott Weenik recently said it was very happy with the views the game was getting on free-to-air TV these days.
Before Spark Sport, Sky TV was the only game in town for domestic sports bodies because the revenue the pay-TV titan was able to pay them was critical.
After Sky bought free-to-air channel Prime (now called Sky Open) in 2006 it put a sprinkling of live games from top tournaments and leagues on that to tease viewers with a taste of the sports smorgasbord Sky had for its subscribers.
Last December Sky pumped up the price of Sky Sports by 11 percent just after TVNZ launched an online hub for all its on-demand and live sport available for free.
On Thursday, Sky suddenly announced live league, rugby and netball matches will also screen for free Sky Open this coming season.
So, 25 NRL matches will screen live on Friday Night Footy, including seven of the Warriors’ fixtures. And 19 Super Rugby Pacific matches will air in Super Saturday Rugby kicking off with the Highlanders v Moana Pasifika on 24 February.
Sky chief executive Sophie Moloney described it as “a beautiful win, win, win” for Sky, its shareholders and viewers.
But how is giving away the stuff it makes customers pay for 'a win' for Sky?
“We’re mindful of household wallets at the moment and this is a way to reach out to a broader fanbase,” she told Newstalk ZB.
It’s also a way to attract more advertising.
“Free-to-air does not generate what subscription does ... but it certainly has a role to play. And advertisers are keen to get in front of highly-engaged eyeballs,” Moloney told Newstalk ZB.
“Perhaps most telling would have been the sense of inevitability that rugby in New Zealand has no option but to recalibrate its broadcast strategy and include an FTA component in all future deals,” said New Zealand Herald sportswriter Gregor Paul, the author of a recent series on rugby’s ‘streaming wars.’
“Sky has presumably gazed into the crystal ball and decided that it needs to ward off the possibility of TVNZ building on its position as a serious sports streaming service,” he wrote.
Sky’s Moloney also said the sporting codes would benefit - but for some the live weekend screenings could also pose a problem.
Hurricanes chief executive Avan Lee told ZB it was great for fans but he was surprised and he “didn’t see it coming.”
Big games on live TV for free on Fridays and Saturdays may not help Super Rugby’s struggle to put bums on stadium seats. The competition has been heavily criticised for being less-than-compelling in recent years.
There’s plenty to play for on-screen when the seasons kick off this month - and maybe more for Ian Smith to gripe about.