Putting sporting or other events of national importance behind broadcasting paywalls "unfairly excludes" some viewers, Minister for Media Catherine Martin said on Thursday, as she launched a review of the events that must be shown free-to-air on either RTÉ, Virgin Media Television or TG4.
The list of events designated as being "of major importance to society" was last reviewed in 2017, when the All-Ireland senior ladies' football and camogie finals were added.
Live coverage of Ireland's participation in the Six Nations was considered for inclusion, but the games were left at "deferred" status, meaning it is possible for a pay-TV company to buy broadcasting rights to those games and not make them free-to-air on a live basis. The games are currently shown live free-to-air by Virgin Media under a rights deal that expires in 2021.
The Government’s public consultation will remain open until January 14th and invites interested parties to nominate events to add to or remove from the list.
The current list also includes the summer Olympic Games, the All-Ireland senior football and hurling finals, Ireland's games in the Rugby World Cup, the Irish Grand National and Irish Derby, and the Nations Cup at the Dublin Horse Show.
The soccer fixtures on the list, meanwhile, are the Republic of Ireland's games (including qualifiers) in the European Football Championship and FIFA World Cup, as well as the opening games, semi-finals and final of those tournaments.
As has happened with the Rugby World Cup and summer Olympics, organisations that do not own free-to-air channels can still buy the rights to events on the list, but they must then sub-license them to a free-to-air broadcaster.
“It is important that national events which are of great importance to Ireland be shown free-to-air for us all to enjoy. Sporting or other events of national importance support social cohesion and create a sense of community, encouraging participation in the event itself and creating a sense of national pride,” Ms Martin said.
“Having events of national importance behind a paywall restricts those who are not in a financial position to subscribe from participating and unfairly excludes those without access through a paywall to the events from engaging with the events on an equivalent basis.”
The major events list, first established in 2003 when the pay-TV industry was enjoying spectacular growth, is permitted under EU regulations.
Events designated for the list must meet two of four criteria: they must have “special general resonance” beyond the sport or activity’s usual fanbase, be recognised as having distinct cultural importance, involve a national team in a competition of international importance, or have traditionally commanded a large audience on free-to-air television.
The Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media noted that the EU generally requires at least a 5 per cent audience share and that in the period 2010-2015, the Irish Grand National and the Nations Cup at the Dublin Horse Show achieved viewer shares of just 5.2 per cent and 4.2 per cent respectively.