A major gripe of your typical Australian rugby fan is the lack of free-to-air coverage. Even Test matches have been seemingly recently downgraded and within recent history have been given delayed starts when a better option was available to the broadcasters.
The first problem rugby has is of course its ratings. Changing these may be a slow and complex task and increasing the popularity of the game has been discussed at length.
Let’s just assume that the ratings are what they are and move forward with where they are currently at.
The next part of the equation is how do free-to-air stations, with these assumed ‘fixed’ ratings, earn enough from the broadcast to be able to justify, firstly showing as many matches as possible live but more crucially, bidding greater amounts for the right to do so?
There can be no real debate that increased TV revenue is good for the game, all things remaining equal.
The FTA stations, most recently Channels 10 and 9, have made efforts to increase their returns on their investment through greater advertising. This has come in the form of cutting to ad breaks after a point is scored and the ball gets returned to half way and also once scrums were called.
Initially there was a few problems with the scrum ads, particularly with Channel 9. Their low commitment to the game shone through when they seemingly were unable to tell when a scrum had been called and regularly waited too long to cut to the ad.
This resulted in the broadcast often returning too late after the scrum had been cleared and potentially crucial play was missed. It must be said however that this has improved with practice as well as moving to a network that is actually somewhat interested in the game.
Similar improvement has has not been found for the post-points ad though which almost every time seems to go for 5 to 15 seconds longer than it takes them to restart play.
What happens is we more often than not return to the action with the ball already having been kicked off and are left to try and figure out or guess what we have missed.
Other codes, notably AFL and rugby league have regular breaks of reliable time periods which naturally allow broadcasters to insert ads without missing any of the on-field action however rugby currently does not have a reliable stoppage to allow this.
For example, balls are kicked out of play at least in comparable amounts to rugby league but the time it takes to form a lineout does not allow an ad to be screened.
Ideally a FTA broadcast should provide coverage of the full match and all the action within to its viewers however there is clearly a benefit to the game if broadcasters are able to increase the return they get on the broadcast and hence the amount they are willing to pay.
So what’s the solution? How far are we willing to go to accommodate the networks? Should we guarantee a stoppage of one minute and 30s after points are scored to fit a full ad in?
Do the networks need to make greater efforts to provide picture in picture or overlay ads so we can still see the action while the ad is playing (and ads can be included when much smaller breaks are available, for example at lineouts)?
Maximising our FTA TV revenue would obviously benefit everyone with a stake in the game, but what are we then willing to pay for free live rugby?
Personally I would say the above points are fairly reasonable accommodations to make. Another alternative could be to ask advertisers to create shorter ads specifically for the rugby telecast but does rugby have the kind of clout to entice advertisers who are willing to do this?
All these options are certainly less extreme than something like a delayed telecast that Ch9 uses for the bulk of its rugby league coverage to allow them to insert ads at will.
Judging by the recent coverage the alternative seems to be that they will screen the ads regardless and if we miss some action then so be it. This is certainly a much less desirable option than getting a mutually agreeable solution to allow reasonable insertion of ads in between the on game action. Even if we initially feel a little dirty for doing so.