Where do you watch the rugby? A struggle for sports access in South Africa.
In the heart of Johannesburg’s high court, a legal spectacle is unfolded this month, which pits media behemoth eMedia Holdings against the formidable MultiChoice Group, owner of the sports broadcasting giant SuperSport on DStv.
What’s on the agenda? The sublicensing rights for the ongoing Rugby World Cup, a battle that has left millions of South Africans in the lurch, unable to catch the action. It feels like the only trustworthy channels for rugby updates are WhatsApp area groups and Checkers Sixty60 notifications.
Earlier in September, SABC was granted the privilege to broadcast 16 out of the 48 Rugby Cup games on its free-to-air platforms. This is after Zizi Kodwa, SA’s Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture urged the two to play nice. But the SABC wasn’t satisfied with the compromise…
The courtroom scrum
eMedia, the underdog in this duel, accuses MultiChoice of strong-arming a deal with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) that deliberately sidelines eMedia’s Openview platform. SABC’s channels find a home on Openview, its set-top box offering.
Still, a carefully crafted sublicensing agreement between SABC and MultiChoice acts as a barricade, preventing the broadcast of World Cup games on the Openview platform.
Last month, as details of this exclusive agreement surfaced, eMedia threatened MultiChoice with the court. Their discontent reached full-page newspaper ads, where MultiChoice was ridiculed for its allegedly anti-competitive stance.
This battle is particularly bitter because 3.2 million digitally migrated South African households stand to miss out on the Rugby World Cup – well, according to eMedia at least. Thing is, Multichoice argues there’s no way to say that all of those 3.2 million households don’t have access to other platforms to watch the rugby.
At R870 per month, I’d say they’re not all on DStv Premium, which boasts the full SuperSport bouquet.
In June 2023, the SABC announced an ‘intermediate switch-off of all analogue services above 694 MHz’ as per Minister Mondli Gungubele. This is to free valuable spectrum for mobile network operators.
Multichoice tackles low
eMedia decried the court’s decision to grant Multichoice full rights. According to them, it hampers the nation’s digital migration imperative, leaving millions unjustly deprived of a sport that’s become part of our culture.
In response, MultiChoice defends its position. Their affidavit, penned by MultiChoice South Africa CEO Marc Jury, asserts that the opportunity to acquire Rugby World Cup broadcasting rights was open to all, not just MultiChoice. He argues that eMedia’s failure to plan and act in advance was at the core of their predicament.
SuperSport, they contend, had facilitated, not hindered, public access to the matches by investing significantly in the live broadcasting license. They point out that eMedia’s desire to broadcast the matches on Openview for free without any investment or competitive effort is equivalent to free-riding, a move unjust and unsustainable.
eMedia tackles high
The jury further challenges eMedia’s claim that the restriction in the SABC sublicensing agreement would cut off viewers in areas without an analogue signal. He cites data showing that most South Africans prefer watching rugby matches in public places where access to DStv or Openview isn’t a prerequisite.
While eMedia fights for the rights of millions to witness the Rugby World Cup on free-to-air channels, MultiChoice has thrown down the gauntlet, challenging the very basis of eMedia’s claims.
As the legal scrummage rages on, the fate of millions of rugby enthusiasts hangs in the balance, highlighting the larger issue of media monopolies and their impact on public access to sports. This concern resonates far beyond the walls of the courtroom.
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