Why do our cable bills keep going up? The answer to a question that has irritated American TV audiences for years is particularly galling for non-sports fans, on news that sports coverage now accounts for about half of the programming costs in a typical monthly bill, as broadcasters scramble to recoup surging fees for showing the action. Why pay so much? Because sport grips viewers even as the wider audience fragments into hundreds of different viewing options. And the action is usually enjoyed live, rather than watched later without the commercials.
At least the viewers of CCTV-5, the Chinese version of ESPN, don’t have the same complaints. Founded in 1995, the channel is still the only one with nationwide rights, with 86% of sports viewership. It also owns exclusive broadcasting rights to all the most popular sports events. Yet Chinese sports fans still find time to gripe, not least because the world’s sporting calendar simply won’t fit into the airtime that CCTV has available each day. Moreover, nationalistic preferences can cloud editorial choices – for example, popular football matches give way to less anticipated events (the Winter Olympics, anyone?) if Chinese athletes are taking part.
That’s also why CCTV-5 is often better known as the “ping pong channel” or “curling channel” by its viewers. “At least my maid has learned how to sweep the floor,” one football fan quipped in an internet forum, complaining about the extensive air time devoted to curling (China has a passable ladies team, apparently). Likewise, racing fans awaiting the 2013 Formula One opener in Australia last month were disappointed when CCTV-5 opted to broadcast a domestic table tennis tournament instead. “Even F1 can’t get on the ping pong channel,” the Beijing Evening News lamented.
CCTV-5 finds itself in a privileged position. Elsewhere, sports broadcast rights typically go to the highest bidder. NBC had to pay $800 million for the US rights to the 2008 Olympics, for instance, while Sky forked out an astonishing £2.28 billion for its latest three-year deal for UK rights to Premier League football, starting next season.
But in China, the terms can be different. “It is a buyer’s market as there is only one dominant buyer,” notes the Economic Observer, and some sports franchises may even have to pay CCTV-5 to get exposure. Organising bodies that refuse to play ball risk losing out on the Chinese audience. While the English Premier League has hoovered up £5 billion for the global rights in its latest deal, it has largely failed to extend its appeal across China because of CCTV-5’s refusal to pay up. Instead most Chinese football fans get to watch Italian Serie A or the German Bundesliga, both leagues having signed giveaway deals. (The English Premier League has signed a six-year deal with regional broadcasters and internet firms but these lack critical mass with viewers and advertisers.)
Other sports franchises have been more flexible in negotiating with CCTV-5, including the National Basketball Association (NBA) of the United States, which has been willing to accept a “symbolic fee” for more coverage on CCTV-5, according to the Economic Observer. In 2008, the NBA even sold 11% of its China unit (for $253 million) to local investors including two state-owned lenders. The strategy has helped it bring in $200 million in sponsorship revenues.
In last month’s annual session of the CPPCC, the advisory body to China’s legislature, Liu Jianmin proposed the break up of CCTV-5’s dominance in favour of regional broadcasters. “Such reform is also vital for the healthy development of Chinese sports,” Liu noted, in a proposal that was widely supported in other sections of the Chinese media. He’s right: without television revenues, professional sport in many countries couldn’t exist as it does today. But at least Liu will soon be granted his wish for additional choices in sports programming – albeit with a typically Chinese twist. Another nationwide sports channel is scheduled to go on air in October. The name of the new offering? CCTV-5-Plus.
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