BSkyB to extend cable deadline

BY MATHEW HORSMAN

The cable and satellite broadcaster BSkyB must give UK cable operators more time to decide whether to sign a fixed-term agreement for the supply of programmes, including the Sky Movie Channel and Sky Sports.

The Office of Fair Trading has asked that the deadline, originally 31 May, be extended by 30 days.

The decision comes in the midst of an increasingly bitter row between some cable companies and BSkyB, 40 per cent-owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, over the terms under which Sky programming is supplied.

Nynex CableComms and TeleWest, two large cable operators, signed a seven- year fixed price agreement earlier this month, and have agreed not to invest in or transmit film and sports programmes in competition with Sky.

Other cable companies, including Videotron and CableTel, have lodged complaints with the OFT and competition authorities in Brussels, seeking to overturn what they term "anti-competitive" contracts that have divided the cable market.

Both Nynex and TeleWest have withdrawn support from "cable-exclusive" programming launched to provide the industry with a alternative to Sky. Comcast and General Cable, two mid-sized cable operators, have not yet decided whether to accept BSkyB's terms and to drop the alternative programming venture.

At risk is a package of sports programmes for the SportsWire channel. Rights to the World Cricket series, as well as secondary rights to Wimbledon Tennis, had both been secured by the cable companies through this joint vehicle. Funding of the service is guaranteed only until 31 May, after which partners would have to extend their backing for a further period.

The OFT confirmed that it had received representations from cable operators criticising the terms of the BSkyB fixed-term agreements and would review the submissions in coming weeks. The complaints were thought to have embarrassed OFT officials, as the fixed-term contracts were the result of an informal agreement between the regulator and BSkyB earlier this year to render the market more competitive.

The dissenting cable companies also says that BSkyB controls access to pay-TV in the UK because it controls the technology used to scramble and unscramble the signals. They also claim that arrangements between BSkyB and Astra, the Luxembourg satellite operator, reduce competition in the UK.

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