More elite sports could end up on free-to-air television in Australia and streaming services such as Stan or Kayo could face increased regulation when bidding for broadcast deals, as the federal government looks to modernise rules governing which events can be shown on Foxtel pay TV.
“Every Australian deserves the chance to enjoy live and free coverage of events of national significance, regardless of where they live or what they earn,” the communications minister, Michelle Rowland, said.
“Subscription-based services make a valuable contribution to Australia’s media market and consumer choice, but not everyone can afford to pay for sport.”
A review of the federal anti-siphoning list, which gives free-to-air broadcasters first opportunity to acquire significant sporting events, will commence on Tuesday. The current list, which expires in April 2023, includes events such as the summer and winter Olympics, Commonwealth Games, the Melbourne Cup, AFL, National Rugby League, the Australian F1 Grand Prix, Bathurst 1000 and significant cricket, tennis and netball competitions, meaning pay TV broadcaster Foxtel can only bid to show those events after free-to-air channels pass.
The communications minister can add or remove events at their discretion. Government sources suggested possible outcomes of the review could include recommendations to change the sports on the list to alter the number of games broadcast on free-to-air television.
The review could also recommend changes to the days on which games are shown, such as calling for AFL games to be shown free on Saturdays. Last month the code’s new TV deal drew criticism from fans that it would reduce the number of Saturday night games shown free.
The treatment of streaming services such as Foxtel’s Kayo, Nine’s Stan and Network 10’s Paramount+ is expected to be a major point of contention. Current anti-siphoning regulations do not restrict those services from bidding, despite their use of a paywall. The shadow communications minister, Sarah Henderson, last month called this a “loophole” that saw streaming services not subject to the same rules as Foxtel.
A Foxtel Group spokesperson noted the review and said the company would make a submission.
Nine and 10 were also contacted for comment.
The Foxtel chief executive, Patrick Delany, told Nine newspapers in August that he too was concerned about that situation, specifically complaining that companies with free-to-air channels could buy broadcast rights to sports they then only showed on their subscription streaming services.
“What the regime protects is not true any more. Free companies are winning rights of free sports events, but they’re pushing consumers to their paid outlets,” he said.
The Free TV Australia chief executive, Bridget Fair, called for reforms to the anti-siphoning rules.
“There is a real risk that unless our anti-siphoning framework is updated we could see iconic sports events being exclusively acquired by subscription streaming platforms,” she said.
“These are analog rules in a digital world, and we look forward to working with the government to renew the anti-siphoning list and expand it to cover all subscription platforms.”
Rowland said the review would consider streaming and online services acquiring broadcast rights, how media companies use the rights they acquire, information gathering and other regulatory rules of the list.
“Since the scheme commenced in 1994, technology has evolved, the viewing habits of Australians have changed, and newer platforms, including streaming services, are not subject to the rules,” she noted.
Henderson last month said there was an argument for “additional restrictions” under the anti-siphoning rules, such as guaranteeing a minimum number of free-to-air games or ensuring matches on “prime days” like Saturdays are shown free.
The AFL $4.5bn 2025-31 broadcast deal will see Foxtel and Kayo with exclusive rights to Saturday games for the first eight rounds in Melbourne. Rowland welcomed the AFL deal but said she would have “great interest” in the exact competition schedule, after earlier cautioning the league to ensure “no diminution” in free-to-air games.
The review will specifically call for submissions from local sporting organisations, in recognition of the trend of greater broadcasting of certain competitions leading to increased interest or participation in that sport.
Rowland will encourage federal MPs to ask their community sport groups to participate in the review, as well as holding a series of roundtable meetings with a “diverse” group of sporting organisations in coming weeks.
“The televising of key sports competitions helps to create shared experiences, foster a collective Australian identity, and contributes to grassroots community-based sports participation,” she said.
Guardian Australia has contacted Foxtel for comment.