The UK government will review the broadcast rules on listed sporting events

United Kingdom

On 15 November 2022, the UK government launched the Listed Events: Digital Rights Review (the “Review”) (press release here) which will consider whether the government’s free-to-air listed events regime should be reformed so that public service broadcasters (“PSBs”) – including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 - are guaranteed the opportunity to show certain major sporting events of national importance on their digital platforms, rather than just focusing on traditional linear TV broadcasting as is currently the case.

What is the listed events regime?

The listed events regime aims to ensure that the British public is able to watch certain events of national importance at no additional cost, by prohibiting pay TV broadcasters from acquiring exclusive rights to listed events and giving PSBs the opportunity to bid for the broadcasting rights of those events.

The listed events (which can be found here) are split into two groups:

  • Group A, which includes the Olympics and FIFA World Cup; and
  • Group B, which includes Six Nations tournament matches involving home countries and the Ryder Cup.

The practical effect of the regime is that (unless Ofcom approves otherwise), Group A events must have live coverage on a PSB and Group B events must have highlights coverage on a PSB.

Why is the government conducting the Review?

Currently, the listed events regime only covers rights for exploitation on traditional linear television services. As more people tune in to watch sport via catch-up and streaming services, the government wants to assess whether including digital rights is necessary to ensure as many people as possible can continue to watch the events.

The government cites the theoretical example of an event broadcast live in the middle of the night on the BBC, but where all streaming and catch-up rights are sold to a different broadcaster and kept behind a paywall. In this instance, according to the government, a culturally relevant event might not be available to a wide audience on a free-to-air basis.

The list of events itself has been recently updated (for example, in April this year to include the women’s World Cup and Euros, and in 2020 to include the Paralympic Games). However, the underlying regime has not been updated in more than two decades.

Notably, other governments are considering changes to their broadcast rules on major sporting events: for example, last month the Australian government commenced a review of its rules, and digital rights appear to be a hot topic in that review.

What will the Review cover?

The government has published (very brief) Terms of Reference for the Review.

In sum, the Review will seek to understand, and if necessary suggest changes that consider and address:

  • the relative importance of digital rights for listed events as opposed to linear rights, both now and as predicted into the future;
  • how digital rights are currently negotiated and predicted future developments;
  • the broader landscape surrounding securing digital rights; and
  • the UK’s international obligations, including under the European Convention on Transfrontier Television.

The government has not published specific questions for the Review, but a list of questions is available from DCMS on request. Those who wish to contribute are invited to email [email protected].

The questions do not add materially to the information available as part of the Terms of Reference, and invite respondents to comment on the possible positive and negative impacts of including, or not including, digital rights as part of the regime. Respondents are also asked what other changes might be made to achieve the objectives behind the listed events regime.

Importantly, the Review is not about expanding the list of events. DCMS confirms that it will not consider changes to the list of events – and that it considers “that the current list of events strikes an appropriate balance between retaining free-to-air sports events for the public while allowing rights holders to negotiate agreements in the best interests of their sport.

Who will be impacted?

If the government changes the listed events regime to include digital rights, the principal impact will be on rights holders and broadcasters, including pay/subscription services and PSBs. However, it should be noted that in practice PSBs already commonly acquire digital rights when they acquire rights to listed events, so whether intervention on the point is really needed is open to question.

As mentioned above, the Review is not considering expanding the list, so organisers of events which are not on the list are unlikely to be affected.

The press release states that engagement has already been undertaken with “stakeholders from a range of groups likely to be interested in the review”. Therefore, we would expect the main stakeholders who will be impacted to already have been invited to participate.

What is next?

The deadline for final responses is 15 December 2022. We will be watching this development closely, so keep an eye out for our updates.

If you would like to discuss the Review, and how it may affect you, please get in touch.