We are barely a month into the new four year contract that saw England national team matches move from the BBC and Sky to ITV and Setanta, but already Setanta, despite its smaller reach and operation, is playing tough. The Times Online is reporting that Setanta has yet to reach a deal with any broadcaster for match highlights of England’s away World Cup qualifiers with Andorra and Croatia, which take place in less than two weeks. The impasse, if not settled quickly, will leave England fans unable to see the matches in any form without a Setanta subscription.
According to the FA’s television contract, ITV automatically gets to air a highlights package for any home England match shown on Setanta. However, television rights for England’s away matches are owned by the host country, who are free to sell to whomever they want. In November 2007, Setanta won the rights to all but one of England’s away qualifiers through deals with media distribution companies Sportfive and Kentaro. As such, Setanta is free to do whatever with these match highlights, and the FA is powerless to stop them.
The situation is not that simple though. Let’s consider where Setanta stands right now. Yes, the company is still not profitable at this point, and it needs more subscriptions. But Setanta is dealing with an image problem right now in Great Britain. Its broadcast of England’s friendly with the Czech Republic last week was met with mostly mixed reviews, and an audience half the size of the highlights program on ITV later that night. Setanta just can’t seem to shake the image of being a poor value version of Sky. And while that’s ok (for now) with the Premier League, who are required by the European Commission to offer some matches to a second TV service, the FA has no such issue. They have to honor the current contract, but there is no reason for them to stay after that if they don’t feel Setanta is a good partner. The FA wants as much coverage of its team as they can get, and they’ll turn up the heat on Setanta to give these rights to someone.
If a deal is not reached, the FA and Setanta will hear about it from a lot of quarters. They’ll hear about how, in just one month, Setanta will have done something that Sky never did in many years when it had the rights. Never mind that, with the total control of the market they have long had, Sky could afford to be a little generous. Suddenly, Setanta’s image among fans goes from being a poor man’s Sky to being greedy broadcasters who kept a nation of fans in the dark. Not a step in the right direction for any company, profitable or not.
Setanta is under no obligation to sell the highlights of these matches, but my guess is they will. A public relations fight is not a way to get new subscribers watching Setanta, and its also a bad way to start a new broadcast partnership. There’s no good ending here. The company will have to take their lumps and move on. After all, with profitability still eluding them, Setanta has much bigger fights to be concerned about.