Off the Wall

Whatever the terms of the television rights to be negotiated next year are, one must surely be that the game regains the right to determine match, and therefore, television scheduling for the premiership.

The NRL has released the schedule for the first five rounds of the 2011 premiership - something which will help with the marketing programmes of the clubs.

The simple reality is that while rugby league dominates pay television viewer numbers, the vast majority of fans still get their rugby league on free to air television - Channel Nine and its regional affiliates.

Under the existing contract Nine has the right to decide which games are shown on free to air on Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

If you are a Dragons fan, and don't have pay television, then tough luck. Nine won't show a match involving the reigning premiers until round five.

But if you are a Rabbitohs or a Broncos fan you are in luck, as four of their first five games will be shown on Nine.

And if you follow the Sharks, the Warriors, or the Storm then you won't be seeing your team in the first five rounds, at least.

When Nine picks the games it wants, the NRL draws up the schedule for the weekend. Talk about the tail wagging the dog!

The argument that "the best games" are reserved for free to air is nonsense.

Take round one for an example. Brisbane viewers will see the Broncos v Cowboys game - last year's 10th placed team meeting 15th (who would have been 16th but for the Storm loss of all points).

On the same weekend the Titans (4th) are playing the premiers, the Dragons.

By any measurement, the best game is the Titans home match, but Nine has taken the Broncos game because it is likely to attract a bigger television audience.

When the new rights deal is negotiated this nonsense must end. The NRL must take back the scheduling rights - so that the viewing majority, the free to air customers, get the best game each weekend.

The AFL has said it would rather receive a lower fee from free to air rights holders than surrender the scheduling rights.

It will be interesting to see how the new "independent commission" addresses the issue sometime next year!

The scheduling issue will be made more complex if the free to air rights are shared, and with the growth of second and third channels available on the digital network.

But the NRL needs to insist that it controls scheduling - and then balance all the factors that come into play such as the need to give every club - and its sponsors - free to air exposure.

It ought to be the first condition of the new agreement - no matter who it is with.

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