Carlton and Mirror eye Premiership TV rights

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Carlton Communications and Mirror Group are prepared to bid up to pounds 200m a year for the right to broadcast Premiership football matches after 1997, sources close to the Premier League said last night.

Carlton's chief executive, Michael Green, and Mirror Group's Kelvin MacKenzie, head of the company's television operations, are scheduled to meet next week to discuss their attempt to wrest the contract from Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB, the satellite broadcaster.

Mirror Group, which owns 43 per cent of the Independent, declined to comment last night. Carlton did not return calls.

"We don't have any comment to make on meetings that may or may not be scheduled," a spokesman for the Premier League said last night. "The Premier League has an open mind as to the future, and there have been a lot of expressions of interest."

Separately, Pearson and MAI, which have also been rumoured to interested in bidding for football rights, are believed to have dropped their plans. The two media companies looked at the prospect in earnest late last year.

Some senior industry sources dismissed the prospect of a bid from Carlton and Mirror Group. "The two companies haven't got the money, and they haven't got the 'shelf space' on television to broadcast the matches," said one.

It is understood the two media companies plan to offer a pay-TV deal to broadcast Premier League matches on cable, but are considering a side deal with the ITV network to show certain matches on terrestrial television.

Carlton controls two ITV licences, Carlton (weekday in London) and Central, and is believed to be considering expanding its small UK cable operations, currently limited to control of SelecTV, the cable-only entertainment channel it bought earlier this year. The company has been rumoured as a potential bidder for Mirror Group, but it is now thought cooperation on the television front may be more likely.

Mirror operates the money-losing LiveTV, a national entertainment channel, and publishes profitable newspapers including the Daily Mirror. It is expected that the two companies would use the newspapers to promote the Premier League service if their bid was successful.

The two companies have not ruled out offering a subsidiary deal to BSkyB, which holds the exclusive rights to the Premiership until 1997, in order to provide matches for satellite subscribers as well.

The current pounds 304m, five-year deal between the League and BSkyB is scheduled to run out at the end of next season. But negotiations to renew the contract, or to entertain rival bids, are expected to start in earnest later this year. BSkyB has pre-emptive rights to match any competing bid. However, the terms of its deal with the League is currently the subject of an inquiry by the Office of Fair Trading, and the company could have regulatory difficulties in the future.

In addition, it is believed that the European Commission is closely watching Premier League developments in the UK, and may insist that any renewal of the contract be limited to a period of two years.

Broadcasting is evolving rapidly in the UK, with digital services planned for as early as next year. The winner of the next Premier League contract could benefit from the expansion in the number of channels available in the digital age.