AFL rights on hold awaiting Network Ten's fate

The apparent decision by the AFL to postpone the auction of its television sporting rights until Network Ten's future is clearer is understandable – the football organisation wants as many bidders in the room as possible.

Expectations of what the AFL's take might be have now risen to more than $1.5 billion. To put that into context, the value of this one sports contract is about three times the value of the Ten Network.

This contrast is so stark that it should worry the owners of all the free-to-air networks in Australia.

Of course Nine and Seven are in a different league, so to speak, because they are both profitable and thus much more valuable.

Part of Nine and Seven's value is underwritten by the government's program anti-siphoning rules that ensure the really big-ticket sports events need to broadcast on free-to-air.

This underwriting should act as value insurance for Ten also but its financial situation has deteriorated to such a parlous state that it can't afford to bid for events like the AFL and the NRL.

That is a large part of what has made Ten so vulnerable. Its ratings and advertising revenue have fallen so far that it is struggling to find sufficient financial resources to invest in a program-led comeback.

Such an outcome has worked in favour of the more slickly managed Nine and Seven. Indeed the problems at Ten have masked some of the structural pressures the industry is feeling.

Thus the outcome of the sale of Ten will be of particular interest to its two competitors. It could ultimately move the commercial television market from a two-horse race to three.

The potential winning bid from a combination of Discovery and Foxtel would be especially concerning. In the first instance Discovery could pump its own enormous library of programs down the Ten Network pipes – which would be a particularly cost-effective way to operate the network. In addition there would be plenty of scope for Foxtel and Ten to bid together for major sports rights.

So it's easy to see why the AFL might cool its heels for a few months.

It's a seller's market for those with the must-have programming. Firstly because these events are rare and secondly because 2015 will see internet television really start to take some market share away from traditional broadcasters. (This is the reason Foxtel is discounting its subscription packages.)

The arrival of Netflix in particular is shaping up as the industry's tipping point. Others including a Nine/Fairfax streaming joint venture due in the market next year.

(Gyngell said after Nine's annual meeting last month that he was no longer lobbying for repeal of the 25 per cent reach rule that prevents metropolitan broadcasters from taking over the regional affiliates, saying it would be redundant as viewers watch more television over the internet. "In five years time we will just go around regional television and stream our content into those markets. We ultimately won't have a regional affiliate deal.")

So the likes of the AFL and NRL can ask more than ever at a time when the networks can least afford it.

The more competition invades the broadcasting market the more the traditional free-to-air operators take on the characteristics of licensed entertainment utilities running pipes in need of product.

Their cost bases can differentiate them in some ways but the key point of difference is their wizardry in the dark art of programming – how they pick (and pay), schedule, promote, and then how they bundle this up to advertisers.

Of course there is a chance that the economic tide may improve next year and give all broadcasters a cyclical lift but at this stage calendar year 2015 is not looking all that hopeful.

This is being reflected in the networks' share prices. Nine is sitting at $1.84 compared with its listing price of $2.05, while Seven West has fallen from above $1.80 in November to around $1.37.

At the shareholder meeting on Wednesday, Ten chairman Hamish McLennan said  business and consumer confidence has been subdued and that has been reflected in most media advertising markets, which have been soft and characterised by short-term booking cycles.

"While the television advertising market remains 'short', we are expecting it to record marginal growth during 2014-15," he said.

At around 21¢ Ten is being held up by the prospect of corporate activity, and particularly an indicative offer of 23¢ from Discovery/Foxtel.

Without that stimulus the price would probably be under 20¢.

So all media investment eyes were on Ten on Wednesday as it showcased its performance and prospects to the market.

While McLennan reminded the markets that there was an improved pulse in the ratings performance in the 2014 calendar year, he gave little (actually nothing) away about the prospects around an offer for the network's shares.

The bottom line is that most of the current investors are far more concerned with the corporate activity than they are with ratings for MasterChef or The Bachelor.

This story AFL rights on hold awaiting Network Ten's fate first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.