Optus ruling actually a good thing for AFL fans

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Let’s get one thing clear: whether you watch the game on your Telstra mobile or your Optus mobile, the AFL is generating broadcast revenue. While Telstra do indeed pay “big bucks” for mobile rights, the Optus method assists the AFL too because what you get is a retransmitted free-to-air broadcast.

That means you’re watching Channel Seven’s broadcast and being subjected to Channel Seven’s ads and increasing Channel Seven’s audience, in the same way someone watching at home is.

While it may take away from the value Telstra is getting for their deal, it adds to the value Seven is getting. Either way, the AFL are earning revenue off you watching football.

So why all the kerfuffle of the past few days? Why did this end up in the courts? Put simply, it’s because the AFL want to earn more revenue off you watching football. They want to double dip.

For one, there’s more money in exclusive broadcast deals. Just look at the FFA’s deal with Foxtel that sees important World Cup qualifiers – which would otherwise warrant free-to-air coverage – on pay TV because the sport’s rights are worth a lot more if sold exclusively.

There’s also more money in deals where the provider charges customers. The most recent footy broadcast deal was propped up by Foxtel gaining access to all matches.

The Telstra-AFL deal is both exclusive and involves paying customers. The deal with Seven does not. Therefore, you are worth more to the AFL if you are watching on your Telstra device than if you are just watching on Seven.

That’s why the AFL are so concerned.

Now, let’s get one more thing clear: the service operated by Optus is not illegal. In fact, it allows viewers to do something they’ve had the right to do for quite some time – that is record, or “time shift”, free to air television.

TV Now (the Optus product in question) allows you to record a free-to-air program to watch it later, as soon as two minutes after the program starts. It’s like the old VCR except you can now watch your recording “on the go”. Optus facilitates this by hosting the data you’ve recorded and allowing you to access it via your mobile or on the web.

Andrew Demetriou has said, “Optus have come along now to seek to try and use our content.” While that’s pretty damning, in truth Optus are not broadcasting the content.

It’s important to note that only the person who makes the recording using TV Now is able to access that recording, so it’s quite different to an illegal online stream. That recording is not available to other users – those users would have to go through the same process and record it themselves.

There are a couple of points where you might draw a line.

One such point would be if Optus were advertising their TV Now service as a way for customers to watch AFL games live. But Optus are marketing the product as a way to watch free-to-air, without specifically mentioning any programs that might allow you to watch.

In fact, currently the only ones advertising the fact AFL games can be seen on the TV Now service are Telstra and the AFL.

Another question mark is that Optus are charging customers for their TV Now service. While what they are charging for is advertised as “storage space” – the data being recorded has to be stored somewhere – if they have built a profit margin into that, things do become a little murky.

However even if they are making some kind of profit, you have to question how Optus are any different to say, a VCR manufacturer or, in modern times, TiVo. These companies have profited from allowing users to time shift, so why should we treat Optus any differently?

Unless the AFL once launched a law suit against a VCR manufacturer, I say we shouldn’t.

Yes, there are differences between the humble VCR and the TV Now service. However, once again – only the person who makes the recording has access to the recording.

As the recordings are done on an individual basis – as in, it’s up to the individual to make the recording – the same rights individuals have always had apply. As they should.

Finally, another point has to be made: it might be easier to sympathise with the AFL on this issue if their handling of mobile and online rights was not so archaic and against the best interests of supporters.

As you’d expect, Demetriou did his best to spin the Optus ruling as a loss for fans this week. “What we do as a not-for-profit organisation is: if we derive returns, we reinvest it into our code,” he said.

But surely the greater loss to fans is that the AFL have chosen to restrict mobile and online access to customers of just one provider. I’m not sure there’s too many codes outside of Australia that operate in such a manner.

Certainly, the United States has a host of examples that simply embarrass the AFL when it comes to games being broadcast on mobiles and online.

Just look at NBA League Pass, which allows you to surf between all the NBA games each and every night. I’ve used it at home on my computer and while out on my iPhone and the quality is superb – and thankfully, I wasn’t restricted by what mobile or broadband carrier I was with.

It’s a subscription service, so there is money to be made. Maybe that money isn’t as big or as easy as what the AFL gets through Telstra, but it would mean the product is available to a far wider audience of supporters.

When you see that the AFL’s deal with Telstra doesn’t even involve games being broadcast online (as in, on computers) and instead just covers mobiles, tablets and the T-Box, it illustrates just how far behind the league is – and will continue to be, given it’s five years until a new deal comes along.

What footy fans deserve is choice. Not only in terms of where and how they watch games but also, especially if they’re being asked to pay, in terms of what provider they want to go through. The AFL simply aren’t doing enough to give them that.

Just remember, though: the AFL isn’t being protective right now because it wants to make money. It’s being protective because it wants to make more money.

Michael DiFabrizio is completing his journalism degree. As an AFL writer, he has been an expert columnist at The Roar since 2009, and appeared in The Age and on ABC television and radio. Follow Michael on twitter @mdifabrizio
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