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NZ acting PM broaches free-to-air sports mandate after Spark RWC debacle

Handre Pollard of South Africa is tackled by Kieran Read and Ryan Crotty of New Zealand during the Rugby World Cup 2019 game between New Zealand and South Africa at International Stadium Yokohama (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

New Zealand’s acting prime minister, Winston Peters, has broached the possibility of mandating free-to-air sports coverage as the controversy over telco Spark’s botched OTT broadcast of the country’s first match at the Japan-hosted Rugby World Cup continued.

“If they [Spark] were not to perform within the next few weeks, then the whole game changes”, Peters is quoted as saying in a report by the stuff.co.nz website.

Spark suffered technical problems during its live stream of the All Blacks’ opening Rugby World Cup game against South Africa on Saturday that interrupted viewing for several thousand households.

As a contingency, the platform simulcast the second half of that match, and the three World Cup matches played on Sunday, on public broadcaster TVNZ’s Duke free-to-air television channel.

Peters’ NZ First party, which is a junior partner in the country’s governing coalition, proposed legislation last year that would mandate free-to-air broadcasts of all rugby, cricket and football World Cup events played by New Zealand, domestic rugby tests, and the Olympic and Commonwealth games.

TVNZ will show a minimum of seven live matches from the 2019 World Cup, including the final as well as substantial highlights and delayed match programming, with the latter including coverage of New Zealand’s group matches.

NZ First’s free-to-air proposals echo similar laws in the UK known as the ‘crown-jewels’ list. But the New Zealand Labour party, the senior partner in the coalition, does not back the move, which it views as regressive, so it is not part of the government’s legislative agenda.

“We’re going to see whether or not there’s any more glitches or mistakes…If Spark get their act together, then maybe we’ll have to suspend that aspiration until 2020,” Peters said in the stuff.co.nz report.

​The report added that Spark chief executive Jolie Hodson reassured the broadcasting minister, Kris Faafoi, on Sunday that technical problems with Rugby World Cup streams would be resolved.

The telco’s ability to deliver the World Cup via its streaming service has been the subject of intense debate in New Zealand since the platform surprised the market by acquiring the rights last year, beating incumbent pay-television operator Sky New Zealand.