The debate over whether Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR) will show the 2014 World Cup took another twist earlier this week when management member Hanno Tomberg pledged a fail-safe scenario.
Tomberg said that if no private channel takes over broadcasting obligations, ERR will air the football championship after all. That statement contradicted a previous one by ERR Chairman Margus Allikmaa, who had said viewers would simply miss the event if private channels don't step in.
Resources would have to be found, Tomberg said speaking on an evening TV program Tuesday, because ERR has already committed to most of the costs and would incur penalties if it abandoned the broadcasts. The exact amount of the penalties is not clear, he said, as it would need to be negotiated with the European Broadcasting Union.
A final decision is likely to come when ERR's supervisory board, the highest authority of the organization, meets in December to confirm its 2014 budget. Despite statements from the management, the board has said that it would prefer that ERR broadcast the football championships. Furthermore, a high-level source told ERR News that the deciding factor is that the organization is already bound by agreement.
ERR signed up for the project way back in 2005, when it agreed with the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) to purchase rights to show 64 football games. In turn, the EBU signed a contract with FIFA, the world football federation, in 2007.
Despite the emergence of various figures in the media, ERR continues to guard the actual cost of the broadcasting rights package (which includes Internet and mobile), while conceding that the total cost of production is in the neighborhood of 600,000 euros.
Announced last week, the plan to abandon the rights and offer to sell them to one of Estonia's privately owned channels has drawn sharp criticism, including from Prime Minister Andrus Ansip. Critics have pointed to the popularity of the sport and the enormous numbers of fans that ERR would be disappointing.
ERR's management had said, however, that it was facing a budget hole and that it would give priority to the other top sports event next year, the Sochi Winter Olympics (insiders are also tight-lipped about the cost of the rights for this event).
Critics also ask why ERR has started dealing with the problem only now, with seven months to go before the World Cup. Those involved say it is because budget laws allow ERR to compile budgets only one year ahead.
It isn't the first time ERR has offered the World Cup to private channels - it did so in 2002 as well. This time around, the only station that has so far publicly expressed interest, the municipality-funded Tallinn TV, abandoned any ambitious on Thursday. Critics said Tallinn TV could not have broadcast the event nationwide.
If ERR does go forward with the broadcasts, the question is where the money would come from. One speculation is funds might be found from the so called "protection funds" reported by ERR on Thursday.
Estonia's 2014 state budget bill, currently being reviewed in Parliament, sets aside 23.8 million euros for ERR's annual budget. That figure was 23.3 million euros in 2012 and 22.5 million euros in 2011.
This year, ERR had three goals of getting additional funding: raising salaries; paying off the radio building's ongoing renovation; and the Olympic Games and World Cup. The first request was granted in line with the policy at all other public sector institutions; the second request was put aside for the 2015 budget; and the third was turned down. Overall, ERR did no better or worse than other publicly funded institutions in the current state of cautious financial recovery.
ERR has paid for major sports events in different ways in the past: tapping the main programming funds in 2008 and 2010, and receiving one-off support in 2006 and 2012. The current dispute has raised a debate over whether ERR should rely solely on its main budget and incorporate major one-time events into its funding requests.