Ecclestone to expand his TV racing empire

BERNIE ECCLESTONE, the Formula One impresario, is signing up a whole army of programme makers to expand his television interests.

The former mechanic has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on state-of-the-art equipment to broadcast Grand Prix motor races in digital formats.

He is using this as the basis of an ever-expanding TV empire which is taking in TV channels across most of Europe.

The value of this business was shown last month when Morgan Grenfell Private Equity, the venture capital arm of Deutsche Bank, paid $325 m (about pounds 200m) for a 12.5 per cent stake in Formula One Administration (FOA), the company which has the commercial rights for the sport. FOA is controlled by trusts that benefit Mr Ecclestone's wife, Slavica, and his children.

Mr Ecclestone is planning to expand the business by making lifestyle programmes to accompany the coverage of Formula One races.

These are expected to include Hello-style visits to the homes of top drivers, talking to their wives and families, as well as behind-the-scenes coverage of the Formula One teams.

Mr Ecclestone has asked programme makers to keep the dialogue in the shows to the absolute minimum so that they can be easily dubbed into languages such as German, Italian and Malay.

He hopes to sell these shows to the broadcasting companies that show Formula One. But it is understood that many of them are none too keen to purchase such coverage.

ITV's recently extended deal with Mr Ecclestone, brokered after a nasty stand-off at the Australian Grand Prix when the ITV crew was thrown out of the pit area, is only for a digital feed of the race, which ITV can show in whatever way it likes.

Mr Ecclestone is more likely to use the programming to fill out coverage on digital TV channels. He currently broadcasts digitally in Germany, Italy and France and is in talks with various companies, including BSkyB and ONdigital, about launching a digital channel in the UK. He hopes to make these lifestyle channels resemble MUTV, the dedicated Manchester United channel shown on BSkyB and cable TV and make by Granada.

The recent deal with Morgan Grenfell essentially valued FOA at $2.3bn and is expected to pave the way for the long-delayed float of the controversial company.

However, the sword of Damocles still hangs over the company in the form of an investigation by the European Competition Commission. This is expected to rule on the relationship between the FOA and the ruling body of the sport, the FIA, next year.

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