BBC seeks right to highlights of top sports as prices rise

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The Independent Online
The BBC is to lobby the Government to ensure that terrestrial broadcasters have guaranteed access to highlights of key sporting events.

The proposed approach, which will be made in the autumn, reflects the dawning realisation within the corporation that the spiralling costs of television rights for sport could deny terrestrial broadcasters live coverage of key events, such as Five Nations rugby, Test match cricket and Wimbledon, within a decade.

A senior corporation source confirmed a case was being prepared but ruled out a high profile, public campaign. "It's something of great concern to us. We are still developing our approach and which way to make the most effective argument ... However, we wouldn't want to give the impression that we're throwing in the towel on live coverage at the moment."

Marcus Plantin, network director of ITV, said he had not yet been approached by the BBC to make a joint submission, but welcomed the corporation's thinking. "We're always interested in exploring any arrangement which assures major sporting events continue to be made available to terrestrial services which deliver mass audiences."

With sport seen as the key force in expanding cable and satellite's viewing franchise, BSkyB has embarked on an aggressive round of sporting acquisitions which have sent the price of television rights rocketing. It has snatched live and exclusive coverage of Premiership football in a pounds 304m five-year deal, this year's Ryder Cup golf, most of the top names in boxing and overseas Test cricket. In rugby league, BSkyB paid pounds 77m to fund and screen a European Super League.

John Birt, Director-General of the BBC, told the Independent a fortnight ago: "The BBC cannot afford to fund sports rights rising at anything like the rate they are now. There is a limit to how much you can pay for anything if the price is going up faster than your income."

Last year the BBC paid pounds 27m - three times the previous price - for three more years of Five Nations rugby. It has exclusive rights to Wimbledon until the next century, but has otherwise settled for shared coverage of cricket, as well as rugby union.

However, senior BBC management fears that it may soon be denied even shared coverage, as prices continue to rise and BSkyB's audience reach increases from 4 million homes to 41 per cent of all television homes by the turn of the century. Guaranteed access to highlights - along the lines of the football deal with BSkyB which allows the BBC to screen Match of the Day - is therefore crucial.

Eight major sporting events are not allowed to be shown exclusively on pay-per-view channels, of which there are none in Britain. The National Heritage Select Committee recommended last year that the list be applied to subscription channels, such as Sky Sports, a proposal rejected by the Government last December.

Chris Smith, Labour's national heritage spokesman, said that his party would adopt the select committee's recommendation. He said an arrangement for BBC, ITV or Channel 4 to have access to other sporting events would be desirable, if a workable mechanism could be agreed with rights holders.

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