ERR's sports chief Marko Kaljuveer was sacked last week, for preferring larger sporting events, such as the football World Cup and the Tour de France, to small tournaments with Estonian athletes. ERR News's opinionated sports editors debated the subject over Skype as the public broadcaster's supervisory board was meeting today - inconclusively, as it turned out - to address the tensions that have flared around the subject.
There's no 'right' answer to this question but I believe that ERR should not be involved in the World Cup broadcasts, and should re-evaluate covering other sporting events, such as the Tour de France.
Granted, the World Cup is the world's most popular spectator event every four years. But that does not mean that ERR has to be involved.
The mission statement of ERR, and all the broadcasting that fits under that banner, is to provide high-quality programming to the public. ERR is funded directly from taxes from the public, and in turn, it is freed from the complications of dealing with advertisers and worrying about raw consumption of the news product. That allows it to provide political, educational and cultural programming that simply wouldn't exist if the size of the audience was the paramount concern, like it is in commercial broadcasting.
That does not mean that quality and quantity are always separate. ETV's "Aktuaalne Kaamera" is the top-rated nightly news program in the country, beating out its commercial competitors. But make no mistake, the World Cup is driven by money. Rates are negotiated for the event with the European Broadcasting Union, and are wildly disproportionate to the size and the income of the country.
In an event where even the participation of an Estonian team can't be argued as a “cultural moment” worth following, ERR should just opt out and let the commercial marketplace figure out how to bring it to Estonia's televisions.
The question is more about private and public sports. There are plenty of private sporting events, led by the football Champions League, which are all about commercial revenues, and ERR as a public company has no place in spending money on covering those events. But the football World Cup and the Olympic Games are different.
The World Cup is only about money to the nation holding the event, and perhaps to FIFA. The TV, internet, radio, etc rights could be sold for far more to private companies, but public broadcasters are preferred, as they can offer a better reach and cover more games. And in this case, especially concerning Estonia, private media companies showed little interest in taking over from ERR. The reason? Many game begin at 22:00 or later, a few games begin after 13:00 Estonian time.
ERR is not only about developing culture, its is about giving the people what they want if there are no private providers. Football is the number one sport in the country. Estonia is never likely to qualify for the event, so the solution is to cut the world's biggest sporting event from Estonia altogether? Finland and other nations will use a geoblock, so there's no tuning into Yle, the Finnish public broadcasting company.
It was probably a smart decision by local providers to give the World Cup a pass for the very reason that you mention, the time shift. But that will be the last Cup for awhile, at least, to have that particular issue. But you can't tell me that ETV is going to rake in much except the die-hards at those hours, either. A game that starts at 1:00 and ends around 3:00?
In a world of subscription virtual-point networks and common workarounds, like satellite packages, ETV doesn't need to be the network of last resort. I recently have been watching the American university (NCAA) basketball tournament during the last few weeks. Yes, I'm a die hard. I've stayed up until all hours of the night to watch the games, as have some other Americans that I know. It's not broadcast locally, but we had various ways to see it.
At least in the Tour de France, you actually can have a local rooting interest, although justifying programming just because an Estonian happens to get a cup of coffee in the event is dicey logic in a business sense (cough, cough, Sochi). But even we don't have that excuse with the World Cup. I'm sure that Estonians who want to see the world's most popular sport's main tournament will be able to do so, with or without ETV's help.
The World Cup will be broadcast by ETV this time, but only because of government intervention. During the next World Cup in Russia, the open market can figure it out, in a way that makes sense for both the broadcaster and the public. Meanwhile, ERR has laid off 100 employees in the last year. I wonder what could have been done in terms of staff or programming with the simple rights money, excluding the money that will be spent to send people to Brazil? ERR would be better off in the future providing programming and content that fits its charter, because it is the only one that will.
Expecting the die-hard fans find alternative viewing possibilities will mostly mean poor-quality shady websites - few will have the means for pay-per-view or travel to Brazil. Four years ago, over 100,000 people tuned in for many games, including 112,000 for the USA versus Ghana game. It is clear people want to watch the games, most games, and it is clear private channels can not afford to show the games, so the only real alternative is ERR.
Estonia has tens of thousands of amateur footballers, even more fans. If you take away their source to watch the greatest footballing event, they will be far less motivated to play football and the nation's most popular sport will suffer. Estonia reaching the playoffs for the 2012 European Championships outweighs gold medals won at Olympic games.
As for Sochi, ERR sent eight people to cover sports where Estonia was represented with the now sacked sports chief (by the way, the correct fact is that 12 people were sacked by ERR in 2013, out of a staff of 650) himself predicting a top-20 finish maximum. He was not far off. In the debate of small sports versus big sports, ERR has so far covered the best of both – the large events which Estonia will never qualify for and the few large events where Estonia is represented but unlikely to win. If ERR spent all of its sports budget on small tournaments with Estonian representation, would people tune it at all? Women's shot put and men's figure skating for example. I would prefer USA versus Ghana any day.