HC Deb 13 July 1966 vol 731 cc1679-86

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. loan L. Evans.]

2.17 a.m.

Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

I think that I will carry the whole of a rapidly retreating House with me when I say that, at this time of the year, the Finance Bill seems to dominate our proceedings. In the same way, sport dominates television. I must admit that I do not object to this. I am an addict of sport on television. I can look at Wimbledon and the test match for hours on end. During this period, my productivity falls to a dangerously low level.

I am not alone in this: many people share my addiction. On Saturday, July 2nd, when both Wimbledon finals and the vital third day of the third test match were on television not to mention Henley—it is estimated that a third of the population over the age of five were looking at one programme "Grandstand", on B.B.C. In other words, the number of people watching the closing minutes of the record-breaking last wicket stand for England between Basil D'Oliveira and the brighest product of Beckenham cricket for many years, Derek Underwood, equalled the entire number who had gone to watch first-class cricket on the spot for the preceding 10 years.

Now there will be another tremendous dollop of sport on television, with the World Cup. Regularly about one-third of the total British population over the age of five watch the cup final, and it has been estimated that the total viewing public for the final of the World Cup will reach 400 million, although I feel that that estimate may be too high. But even if one takes a lower figure than 400 million, the fact remains that on this one evening the number of people look-in throughout the world will be 10 times as great as the total attendance at all the Football League matches last season in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I do not think there can be any argument at all about the popularity of sport on television, but the position, to put it mildly, is not very satisfactory. On the one hand, a substantial number of people resent the amount of time that is devoted to sport, particularly at certain times of the year, just as many misguided people resented the amount of time devoted to politics and politicians during the General Election. They would rather have seen their favourite programmes go on. At the same time, probably a smaller, but still substantial, number of people clearly would like even more sport on television and would like to be able to watch every ball of every test match played in this country.

Nor is the position satisfactory from the point of view of sport. We have been told that 400 million people may watch the final of the World Cup, but the Government had to hand out, for improvements of football stadia where the preliminary rounds of the World Cup are being played, no less than £400,000 in the way of grants. It seems odd that a sport which has this vast appeal has to call on the Government for hand-outs which could be put to substantially better use, perhaps to pay for the relief of blind workers from the Selective Employment Tax, an Amendment to the Finance Bill which was turned down a few hours ago. Surely it is odd that a sport with such a wide appeal should need a Government hand-out.

Each year 4 to 5 million people watch the finals of the amateur athletics championships, and yet each year the Amateur Athletics Association has to go cap in hand to the Government and to private sources to try to raise enough money to send representative teams abroad. Perhaps 6 million or more people will be looking at any one moment at a test match, and yet the county cricket championship, which is the focal point of the first-class game in this country, has been tottering on the edge of bankruptcy for many years. The imposition of S.E.T. on county cricket may drive a number of county cricket clubs into bankruptcy.

There must be a better way of getting some financial sense into our sporting organisation. I believe that the answer lies with pay television, which has been launched on a strictly experimental basis in Britain and which televised the recent Cooper-Clay world heavyweight championship. There is evidence, in this country, the United States and Canada, to show that if pay television is to work on a really national basis, sport must provide the staple part of the programmes. Certainty the money-making programmes have basically been sporting ones.

I am not saying that all sport on television should be swept on to a pay-asyou-look basis, because there are a number of sporting fixtures which must be made available to the B.B.C. and the I.T.A., and this might be extended in future. However, there is a case for transferring a major part of the sport which now appears on ordinary television to a pay television organisation.

Nor do I want to see the substantial sums of money that would clearly be raised in this way going to the promoters of pay television alone. About three years ago I suggested that the major sporting organisations in Britain, such as the Football Association, the M.C.C., the Rugby Football Union and the Jockey Club, should get together and organise their own pay television network. This may never be practicable, but I am sure that, with sensible organisation, it would be possible for the sporting organisations to work out the organisation of a pay television system which meant that the major part of the money raised from sporting events went to the sporting associations concerned. The best way to do that could be settled by sensible negotiation.

I am satisfied that a large number of leading people in the sporting organisations appreciate the importance of pay television and that the Joint Under-Secretary at the Department of Education and Science, who is responsible for sport, appreciates the importance of pay television as a potential Pandora's box for sport. I am not sure that the Post Office Ministers have grasped its importance and I fear the attitude of the B.B.C., which seems to regard pay television as a potential enemy that must be crushed at birth. I know that the strongest pressure has been put on at least one promoter not to have any dealings with pay television, even in its present minute form. I am particularly afraid that the B.B.C. will try to inflame any prejudices it may find in our new Postmaster-General, and that a snap decision may be taken in the not-too-far-distant future which could damage the prospects for pay television.

In this very restricted debate, at this very late hour, I do not expect the Assistant Postmaster-General to give a detailed survey of the future of pay television and the role of sport in it, but I would ask for an assurance that before a final decision is taken on the future of pay television our representative sporting bodies will be fully consulted, because I believe that pay television offers them the financial strength which at the moment they so sadly lack.

2.32 a.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Joseph Slater)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) for raising the subject of sport and television for discussion tonight. Before coming to the particular points he made, I should like to make one or two observations of a more general kind. The first is to recall that there is written into the Instruments governing the conduct by the B.B.C. and the I.T.A. of their services this broad specification. They are to be provided as a public service for disseminating information, education and entertainment. And they are to maintain, among other things, a proper balance and a wide range in their subject matter. These broad injunctions are for the two broadcasting authorities to turn into the practical realities of programme planning and provision, week in and week out.

But there would, I am sure, be general agreement that, if these broad injunctions are to be met satisfactorily, then sport should occupy an important place in the programmes of the television services.

May I turn now to the particular arguments put forward by the hon. Member. Essentially, what he had to say is this. There are very large audiences for the sporting events shown on television. These audiences, he has already indicated, often amount to several million: indeed, there have been occasions when, at a crucial stage in a test match, or a popular champion is carrying our fortunes in a final at Wimbledon, or during the Cup Final, a sizeable fraction of the total population will be watching the event on television. Yet at the same time, much sport is in a bad way financially.

Some of the smaller football clubs are scarcely able to survive from one season to another. We have even been reminded that attendances at cricket matches are not nearly as high as they might be. Though Wimbledon is crowded to capacity for the more important games, the smaller tournaments do not attract big enough audiences. The hon. Member goes on to say that if a charge could be levied, as it were, on each set when it is tuned in to such events as these, and if the proceeds could be made available to the particular sports, then the state of their finances would be transformed. From being generally impoverished, they would become very well off.

It is sometimes argued that broadcast television is, in part at least, the cause of the decline in the financial fortunes of sport. The viewer sitting in his armchair at home would, before he had broadcast television at his disposal, have been a spectator who paid to get into the ground. Sometimes the argument is taken further in this form. So far as competition by broadcast television is the cause of the financial problems facing sport, if some way can be found whereby sport can compete more effectively, it should be given every chance; and pay-television is just such a way.

We have been reminded more than once that it was in its second White Paper on Broadcasting (Cmnd. 1893), published in December, 1962, that the Government of the day announced its decision to permit an experiment in pay-television. This the hon. Member sees as providing a way for sport to tap the pockets of the huge television audience. But, as I understand the hon. Member, he also sees it as necessary to the success of the experiment that the co-operation of all the main sporting organisations will be forthcoming. He points out that the cost of the provision and maintenance of the special equipment attached to the set of each subscriber has to be recovered. Then there is the cost of collecting the payments from subscribers. So subscribers have to be willing to pay enough each week to enable these costs to be covered.

Well, it is questionable whether they will want to do so unless they can be reasonably sure that the programmes for which they will have to pay are better than those they can get on broadcast television for the price of an annual licence fee of £5: that is for a fraction more than 3d. a day. At the same time, the pay-television operators cannot be expected to provide expensive programmes unless they have enough subscribers to their service. This is only common sense. This is the dilemma which, in the hon. Member's view, faces the pay-television operators. And the way out of it, he has suggested, would be for the leading sporting organisations to switch the most attractive sporting events from the broadcast television services—that is, from the B.B.C. and independent television—to pay-television.

There are a number of points in the case made by the hon. Member for Beckenham about which I would have reservations. Thus, the proposition that attendances at sporting events have declined, though true of some sports, is not true of all. I am told that public interest in some sports has grown considerably in recent years. Show jumping, swimming and ice-skating are examples. It may be thought that it is the presentation of these sports on television that has led to their new-found popularity. But do not know that one could insist that this is the sole reason, any more than one could insist that broadcast television of sporting events accounts, by itself, for the decline in the number of spectators for some sports. I suspect that a whole tangle of reasons underlies such a change as this in social habits; and that these reasons have their source in all those things which, over the years, have served to widen tastes and interests and have led people to look further afield for their amusement and entertainments than they did in the past. Television is certainly one of those things. The car is another. In general, we may say that there are more ways of spending our leisure time —and money—than there used to be.

Perhaps I may quote the Wolfenden Committee Report. The Committee, whose concern was with sport in general and chiefly with sport that is not organised primarily for profit, had no hesitation in recording the view that television is, overall, of financial help to sport in this country.

The hon. Member for Beckenham based h is case on pay television. Here again, I think it would be unwise to venture too absolute a view about the role that it might play. He will, I am sure, recall the serious doubts that the Pilkington Committee felt about pay television, doubts which led the Committee to recommend against the idea. Incidentally, the Committee's view was that, in general, sport would suffer from the introduction of pay-television. However that may be, the Government of the day decided that there should be an experiment. The experiment is now taking place. Perhaps because of the doubts expressed by the Pilkington Committee, the terms of the decision were cautiously drawn. They are there for all to read in the second White Paper on Broadcasting; and they say, among other things that it is necessary not only to ascertain whether there is likely to be a significant demand for a service, but also to try to measure the effect on B.B.C. and I.T.A. services, the effect on sport and entertainment, and the demand on resources generally.

As my right hon. Friend said in the debate on broadcasting in May last year, the licences granted to the experimenting companies by the Conservative Government are binding on the present Government; and though all but one of the companies had withdrawn, one company is providing an experimental service. The implications of a major transfer of sporting events from the B.B.C. and independent television to pay television, would, I think be very serious indeed. Certainly I am convinced that no responsible Government could fail to concern itself with them.

It is against this background that we should, I suggest, set the hon. Member's proposition that the right place for sport is on pay television and that sports programmes should be switched from broadcast television to pay-television. There is the experiment; there are the broad considerations on which it was decided that it should take place. How it will work out, and what interpretation we can put on the results, remain to be seen. Certainly, it is far too soon to start offering judgments now. We shall have to see what in practice are the implications of this service, also authorised in the second White Paper.

I hope the hon. Member will feel able to agree that, besides the considerations that have led him to raise the question of sport and television tonight, there are other important and far-reaching considerations. All will have to be most carefully weighed, when the time comes for the final decision on these issues.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Three o'clock a.m.