After months of intense negotiation and fractious litigation with Cricket Australia, Channel Nine has retained the television broadcast rights to international five-day, one-day and Twenty20 cricket. It was a white-knuckle ride. Nine exercised its ‘last-rights’ clause with Cricket Australia, allowing it to trump all others with the final bid, less than an hour before they lapsed.
Cue exhalations of relief from some viewers, especially those of a certain age, who have been afflicted with beige-tinted nostalgic anxiety at the prospective relocation or even dissolution of the Nine commentary team, especially the saintly Richie Benaud. If Nine had not used its last rights to show the next Ashes series in Australia, its 36-year Kerry Packer-initiated association with cricket would have been dead and buried.
Simultaneously, the more bling-oriented and younger audience that prefers domestic Twenty20 Big Bash cricket has found a suitable home at Channel Ten, Nine’s dog-eared, youth-skewing rival. Ten was up for showing the five-day game, but is rather more in tune with the brief noisy spectacle of bash and crash cricket than the more sedate length-and-line fetish talk of the Tests.
What lessons can we learn from this decision about the state of television sport as an integral element of Australian culture?
First, it confirms the absolute centrality of live sport to television, and its continuing rude health despite constant prognoses that this legacy medium is heading for the media scrap yard.
Nine, which has only recently agreed to pay the lion’s share of a $1 billion 5-year rights deal for rugby league with FoxSports and offloaded $3.6 billion of debt, felt that it could simply not afford to lose a prime summer programming staple. Its US hedge fund owners somewhat uncomprehendingly agreed to pay the price of $80 million in cash and ‘contra’ per year for a game that is far stranger than baseball.
Ten, the only Australian network without a major on-going team sport property and itself in some financial trouble, was willing to lose money on a bigger broadcast deal in order to draw attention to itself and to lure an audience that might get into the habit of watching its other programs. Sport remains one of television’s proven loss leaders.
Ten did not win the big one, but it succeed in driving up the cost of cricket rights for Nine (just as Nine had done for Seven over Australian rules football), but itself had to pay handsomely - $20 million per year - for the Big Bash rights.
It will inevitably be said that cricket was the winner, but which part of it? Neither network seems much interested in state-based Sheffield Shield and Ryobi Cup cricket, the daggy but vital training grounds for other more glamorous forms of the game. Negotiations continue over whether they will make it to the screen at all.
Community-based cricket was pre-emptively out of the blocks demanding its cut, and Cricket Australia has promised to share the media and sponsorship spoils with those developing the game on a voluntary or low-paid basis.
But there is no doubt that the most substantial rewards will go to cricket’s male player and administrative elite. The co-dependency of sport and the media does not lend itself easily to a generous spreading of the benefits to the mid-level and grass roots. It is a market-based relationship that inherently privileges celebrity players and big media moments.
It is also a nexus that has proven resilient in the face of technological change. The new deal involves a further $60m for digital rights provided by the networks to develop cricket’s online and mobile visibility. Cricket will be readily available free-to-air on the biggest screen in the house, but also streamed onto sundry other computer, tablet and smartphone screens.
New media technologies and platforms have not, therefore, killed off television as some have predicted. Instead, at least in the realm of sport, television still commands enough capital to incorporate and mesh with new ways of seeing Australia’s favourite games.
So cricket, the ‘spirit of summer’, will still be presented with the comfortingly familiar - if often exasperating - Nine team in the central commentary position. Ten will supply the exuberance and flash. The ways of watching live cricket will proliferate. The old and the new have been reconciled, for now, in cricket’s wide world of screens.