HD wars: When AFL and MKR collide

Angus Kidman 24 April 2017 NEWS


Another chapter in the strange history of TV and sport in Australia.

It's sometimes forgotten in our current Netflix-binge world that sport is the most important thing on television, commercially speaking. For pay TV, sport is far and away the main driver for subscriptions and the source of the most popular shows. That's also the case on free-to-air commercial TV, which has the added protection that many sports are on the anti-siphoning list, which requires that key sporting events must be made available to free-to-air stations in preference to pay TV.

The anti-siphoning list guarantees that you'll be able to watch a footy grand final on TV without paying for it, but creates its own problems. Before 2015, it meant that you were stuck with watching the broadcast in standard definition, because the rules for migrating from analogue to digital TV required that the main channel for each commercial network be in standard definition. Secondary channels (like 7mate for Seven or GEM for Nine) could be HD. The upshot? For years, standard definition was the only option for a live grand final.

Progress was gradual. In 2015, both the AFL and NRL grand finals were simulcast in high definition on those secondary digital channels. Since then, the rules have been adjusted again, and most commercial networks have reallocated their spectrum so that their HD broadcast is on their main channel, which eliminates the issue. Almost.

Now that we're used to watching sport in HD, it can be disappointing if a match we fancy turns up on one of the digital channels, which are now standard definition. This happens pretty regularly; AFL matches will show on Seven's main channel in Melbourne, but on 7mate in Sydney. For NRL, Nine will typically use its main channel in Sydney and Brisbane, but switch to GEM in Melbourne.

Today, however, Seven is taking a slightly different approach. Unusually, because of Anzac Day, there's a Monday night AFL match between Melbourne and Richmond. The AFL's contract with Seven requires that every match is broadcast in HD in Victoria. That would mean it should run on the main Seven channel.

But Monday nights on Seven are currently occupied by My Kitchen Rules, which is the top-rating show on TV right now, and Seven understandably doesn't want to mess with that juggernaut, especially as its finals week is commencing.

The solution? For the broadcast in Victoria, 7mate is being switched to HD and used to broadcast the match. That means the AFL gets what it wants (HD for Victoria) and Seven gets what it wants (lots of people watching exaggerated cooking dramas). That does mean that Victorians will get an SD broadcast of MKR tonight, but I suspect not many people will notice.

Angus Kidman's Findings column looks at new developments and research that help you save money, make wise decisions and enjoy your life more. It appears Monday through Friday on finder.com.au.

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