Is Maori TV chasing unlikely free-kick?

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It’s an old chestnut, I know.

Yet Maori Television’s bid for the free-to-air broadcasting rights at the 2011 Rugby World Cup has only served to highlight one of the biggest anomalies facing New Zealand’s professional sporting environment.

That is, the question of public entitlement to free television coverage.

The great sporting television debate sprang to life again this week as argument and counter-argument raged over the Maori TV bid, much of it involving the thought of taxpayer money being used to fund the initiative, and concerns that rugby folk would be forced to endure a Maori propaganda campaign while following the World Cup.

Quite how this would differ from a TVNZ bid, however, remains unclear.

After all, if the Government broadcaster was to win the tender, taxpayer funds would still be required to finance the cost, and viewers would still have to tolerate the usual diet of public service announcements – domestic violence, drinking, mental illness, driving – you name it.

Beyond TVNZ’s (only slightly) superior signal coverage, it’s really a matter of ono of one and half a dozen of the other.

Neither channel has a ready-made commentary team or a regular, weekly rugby presence, least of all a particularly high national profile among the general sports fraternity.

Whatever your preference, though, the bigger issue surrounds the slightly anachronistic practice of trying to force a highly commercialised operation to sell its rights to a certain type of broadcaster, all so free-to-air viewers can enjoy the product at no charge. You wonder how long that can last.

We know we have to dig deep to watch the Cirque du Soleil. We expect to pay for the privilege of attending the latest plays, opera, or ballet.

If we wish to hear our favourite musicians live in concert there is an understanding that it will cost. But sport? Exempt, apparently. The feeling is that we have the right to watch it for free.

To be fair, this isn’t just a Kiwi issue.

The British parliament is considering adding Ashes Test cricket to its list of protected, free-to-air events, alongside other extravaganzas such as the Grand National Steeplechase, the FA Cup final, the soccer World Cup finals and the Olympics.

Politicians there call the protected events the “Crown Jewels”, an irony that hasn’t been lost on dissenters, who point out that even if someone wished to view the Crown Jewels these days, they’d still have to line up and pay an entrance fee.

Never mind the thought that there might be more worthy recipients of taxpayer money than a bunch of highly paid sporting jocks.

There’s also the matter of relevance. Sky television in NZ not only has the best infrastructure available but also the most immediate hands-on experience in terms of covering major Kiwi sports events.

Not so TVNZ, who’ve already sold off the 2010 Commonwealth Games broadcasting rights to Sky – apparently because they were unable to turn a buck.

It makes you wonder whether this might soon become the norm – the sight of public broadcasters sticking to their knitting and leaving the specialist stuff to the specialist channels.