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The great World Cup TV swindle

Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group B match between Portugal and Spain at Fisht Stadium on June 15, 2018 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Roar Guru
17th June, 2018
39

Portugal and Spain produced a classic for the ages this past weekend.

Cristiano Ronaldo finally got to score against the Spanish and loved it so much he did it three times, and the Iberian neighbours served up a ten-course banquet of the most sumptuous football any viewer could hope for.

» See who to tip tonight in our World Cup expert tips column

Luckily for most of Australia, the game was televised on SBS.

About five hours earlier I, along with most of the football-loving public, got our first taste of the Optus Sport coverage of the World Cup with the match between Uruguay and Egypt via their much-vaunted app. If Spain-Portugal was a ten-course feast, Optus’s attempts to bring the game onto TV screens was the equivalent of out-of-date french onion dip and stale crackers.

A quick visit to Optus’s Facebook page and website revealed that many people were experiencing what I was seeing, which was essentially nothing, punctuated by a spinning bagel, then some ghostly garbled images. So the telco’s claim of bringing us every second of the action of this World Cup probably needs a hefty qualifier along the lines of, “If our streaming service and your download speed are absolutely top notch and you’re the only person trying to watch the game”.

How did it come to this? How is almost 60 per cent of the biggest sporting event in the world getting quarantined in Australia by a company who don’t even have a TV platform? Especially when there is this old, possibly archaic but still-existing government edict called the TV anti-siphoning laws?

The general consensus goes along these lines: someone had exclusive rights to televise all the World Cup games either live in brilliant HD or something substantially less brilliant. Whether that was SBS or Optus doesn’t really stand up to the admittedly circumspect scrutiny of most casual observers.

Cristiano Ronaldo

(Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

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Given SBS has faithfully brought Australian viewers every World Cup game since 1990 (with a very brief and unsuccessful interlude by Channel Nine in 2002), we’ll go with the multicultural network as the hosts. This is very much in line with those previously mentioned anti-siphoning laws, which were set up to ensure that our favourite major sporting events were not gobbled up by then-fledgling cable TV operators who were searching for the hook to entice Australians to pay for their services.

Somewhere in the last two years our sports viewing comfort was shaken by the insertion of Optus into the football broadcasting market via their audacious yanking of the Australian broadcast rights of the English Premier League from previous home Foxtel. Foxtel is one of those previously mentioned cable TV operators, but given they’ve now been around for more than two decades, they have become a part of the TV landscape in this country – and by “TV landscape”, I mean the sort where you point a remote control at a TV screen and select a channel to watch a show on, whether you are paying a subscription for that privilege or not.

Optus have no such platform, not anymore. Instead they were into live streaming, a concept I am only just getting my head around, being firmly of the generation that still points the remote at a screen and hits a button. Not that I had any need to worry, or so I thought – SBS would be looking after my World Cup needs, right?

Well, only about 40 per cent of them, it turns out. For the rest I needed to either be an Optus customer and gain access to a Fetch TV box or download an app for a not unreasonable cost and then watch games through a few different technological link-ups that my non-technological brain was doing its best to grasp.

Before I go further, I should say that not even Optus were entirely sure what my options as a non-customer were.

At one point I was told I could indeed purchase a Fetch box for a cost far less reasonable than the app (but I had to buy it for 12 months, not just one). At another, I was told that I could not do that unless I was also a mobile customer. Optus customer service was seeming to do a good job imitating their eventual streaming service – a lot of nothing punctuated by a few seconds of clarity.

[latest_videos_strip category=”football” name=”Football”]

But how did 60 per cent of the World Cup slip away from SBS? It would seem that SBS traded their mad month of football for a Premier League game each week. So my admittedly dodgy maths says they got 10 per cent of the EPL but lost 60 per cent of the World Cup.

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Does this mean Australia is the only country that has to rely on a streaming service for their full diet of the tournament? I have no idea, but I’d be really surprised if the situation viewers are facing up to here was repeated in other countries without a bloody coup led by football fans who were sick of seeing a spinning doughnut on their World Cup screen.

For that was the experience during the Egypt-Uruguay game, the first one of the tournament that was brought to us exclusively by Optus. The many frustrated posts on the Optus site of viewers having their feed drop out, their stream buffered, their screen frozen, was symptomatic of a general football populace who were close to putting a boot through their expensive HD screens.

Apparently, those with the Fetch box had no such issues, but I’m unsure what percentage of Optus’s total subscriber population this represents.

I watched my first ever World Cup match in 1974 on a black and white TV. It was Australia versus East Germany in the very early hours of a tired nine-year-old kid’s day. The stream didn’t buffer, the screen didn’t freeze. How can it be that 44 years later thousands of people didn’t get the chance to do that?

Optus only have a few hours to sort out the issue and there appears to be little urgency to do so. A lot of apps might be getting returned today.