CEO STEPHEN VAN ROOYEN

Sky Media CEO Stephen van Rooyen Blasts RGA’s ‘Whistle to Whistle’ Self-Imposed Ad Ban

The self-imposed “whistle to whistle” television advertising ban announced late last week by the Remote Gambling Association (RGA), regarding gambling ads during the broadcast in the United Kingdom, has drawn its first major public detractor. That’s Sky Television Ltd. of UK and Ireland CEO Stephen van Rooyen, who took the RGA to task for what he alleges is a misdirection aimed at generating goodwill, when the ads to be covered by the RGA’s voluntary ban are only a small portion of the the RGA member companies’ real advertising.

In an op-ed first appearing in the London Times and subsequently released via Sky’s corporate site, van Rooyen asserts that the RGA’s plan won’t be as effective as hoped, and, if one reads between the lines, that’s the way the RGA companies might want it. According to van Rooyen, the reason is that sports-betting firms spend on average 80% of their advertising and marketing budgets online anyway.

In a polite phrasing that nonetheless drips with sarcasm, van Rooyen wrote, “You could be forgiven for thinking that this sounds a reasonable plan. The truth is, the facts paint a very different picture. What the RGA has failed to address is the inconvenient truth that over 80 per cent of the gambling industry’s advertising is in the largely unregulated online world.”

Inconvenient truth or not — and the stats align with a GambleAware study into advertising expenditures by UK-licensed firms — it’s also not quite as clear a red-herring ploy as van Hooyen asserts. Broadcast advertising is a heavily regulated area, whereas online ads, for the largest part viewable anywhere around the globe, are not. Despite the abilities of geolocation technology, attempting to block the entire UK’s online access to sports-betting ads during live events isn’t only a herculean challenge, it would also smack strongly of censorship.

Besides, as observers on both sides of the UK’s heated gambling-access wars have noted, the real losers from the RGA’s self-imposed ad ban are likely to be the UK broadcast networks where those ads have been run. Networks such as Sky are now faced with the prospect of replacing as much as 20% of the ads run during those sporting events, and such ads are among the priciest any network offers. And admittedly, even though the RGA companies are pulling the plug on those TV ads, they can (as van Rooyen notes) redirect that ad money toward ever more effective ways of targeting online bettors.

As van Hooyen wrote, “If the RGA and gambling companies are serious about protecting vulnerable gamblers, then they should start by looking at where they spend the most money, what has the least level of regulation and where there is most evidence of harm: the online world.”

Van Hooyen makes some good points, but whether the bulk of his complaints are sour grapes or a legitimate regulatory gripe is in the eye of the beholder. Van Hooyen also describes some of the anti-problem-gambling measures his company has undertaken, though to read it all, Sky might be the only one acting ethically and responsibly. He closes his missive with the following:

These aren’t the views of a broadcaster scared of losing TV ad revenue; quite the opposite. Last month we voluntarily agreed to limit the number of gambling ads to one per commercial break. And we’re using our AdSmart technology to enable people to block gambling advertising if they wish. As a result, there will of course be some financial impact to Sky, but a proportionate and responsible limit to gambling advertising is the right thing to do.

The irony is that TV advertising is already highly regulated, with rules around exposing inappropriate advertising to minors and limiting when and how often gambling ads can be seen. This is not the case online. If the RGA plan is implemented, then spend would simply shift even further online, with smartphones, tablets and computers targeted with even greater precision. This doesn’t feel like a good outcome for anyone except gambling firms and online tech platforms; the same platforms who by avoiding their tax commitments deny government the funds that society needs.

Equally, this deprives British TV broadcasters of revenue that helps make high-quality programming that people love to watch. Instead, this money is funnelled offshore and the UK loses out. What this has shown is that yet again there is a disparity of regulation between TV and online platforms and that there are bigger issues at stake that affect us all. It is why politicians need to look at this in a more meaningful way and ensure that the same rules for advertising in the offline world apply online.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. Markets change and develop over time, and the playing fields are never truly level. Change always comes.

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