EU to act on BSkyB sport

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The Independent Online
The European Commission will step to the aid of the armchair sports fan this week with plans to curb the growing power of cable and satellite TV firms such as BSkyB in snapping up important live sports events.

The proposals, to be discussed in Brussels on Wednesday, will ensure that viewers across Europe will not be charged to view prestige national sporting events.

"The objective is to ensure that events of major importance for society are on clear (non-encrypted) television and not on pay television," a Commission official said this weekend.

The move comes after BSkyB strengthened its pivotal position in the UK television industry on Friday, in a deal with Granada and Carlton to bid for a new digital terrestrial TV licence.

The firm, 40 per cent owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, is already planning to launch up to 200 digital channels on satellite later this year and will this week authorise a pounds 250m order for set-top decoders.

BSkyB's success will also be underlined by a 25 per cent rise in first- half profits to at least pounds 132m on Wednesday from pounds 106m last time. Just four years ago it was still loss-making.

Along with the new British Digital Broadcasting (BDB) joint venture, BSkyB has already linked up with Germany's powerful Kirch Group in Europe, with more deals likely.

Industry sources say that Carlton was set to take 51 per cent of BDB, but in the end Sky's muscle secured it a one-third share, not the 24.5 per cent originally proposed.

At present, only three of the European Union's 15 member states - the UK, France and Belgium - protect viewers' rights to watch big sports events free of charge.

A defeat in the House of Lords last March saved the "crown jewels" - the FA Cup and Scottish FA Cup finals, the Derby, Grand National, Wimbledon finals, the football World Cup, Olympic Games and England's home cricket tests - from Sky's clutches after a government U-turn.

In France, European Cup football, Five Nations rugby, the cup final, Olympics and Tour de France are similarly protected, while Belgium's Flemish region draws up a new list each year.

Next week, however, the Commission is likely to endorse plans to set those rights in stone across the European Union.

Under the proposals, broadcasters like BSkyB, Canal+ in France and Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset in Italy would still be able to buy exclusive rights. But they would have to make arrangements for viewers to watch for free. "The rules concern not the acquisition but the use of rights," the Commission official said.

Shares in Pace Micro Technology are expected to be among the biggest gainers when the order for 1 million set-top boxes is made after BSkyB's board meeting on Tuesday.

The West Yorkshire firm is understood to be one of four manufacturers lined up, including Nokia, Sony and Panasonic.