Major hints at challenge to BSkyB sports

Screen scrap: Murdoch's increasing dominance of key events may be target for new legislation

Media Editor

Rupert Murdoch's dominance of televised sports may become the target of new legislation, John Major, the Prime Minister, hinted yesterday.

The news sent shares in BSkyB, Mr Murdoch's 40 per cent-owned satellite broadcaster, down 7p to 413p, amid growing concerns that his lucrative near-monopoly might come under direct attack.

In his first public comment on the controversial issue of sport rights, Mr Major said the Government was considering ways of further protecting the handful of top sporting events that are still broadcast on terrestrial television.

"This is an interesting debate," Mr Major told BBC's Breakfast News, "and it is one that is under consideration at the moment, but no conclusions have been reached."

To date, both leading parties have shied away from criticising Mr Murdoch, whose stable of newspapers has been influential during election campaigns.

BSkyB has secured the rights to all Premier League Football matches, Rugby League and a share of the Football League. Under current legislation, a handful of events cannot be broadcast exclusively on a pay-per-view basis. These include the FA Cup Final and certain Wimbledon tennis matches. However, the current rules do not prevent the listed events from being broadcast on pay-TV - for instance, BSkyB's Sky Sports network, which is available on a subscription basis only via satellite or cable.

Last year, several media companies lobbied the Government to include firmer protection of listed events in the new Broadcasting Bill, which will receive a second reading in the House of Lords in two weeks. However, the draft version of the legislation did not include any references to sport rights.

Mr Murdoch's dominance of sport is the target of an inquiry by the Office of Fair Trading, which is also reviewing the terms under which BSkyB makes its own channels available to the cable industry.

The BBC has also expressed privately its concern over Mr Murdoch's growing monopoly, although the public service broadcaster has teamed up with BSkyB to broadcast Match of the Day - highlights of Premier League matches.

New legislation on listed events would have to be balanced by other concerns, according to the Government. Few want to return to the days of a duopoly made up of the BBC and ITV, which served to limit the amount of money flowing to professional sports.

With the entry of Mr Murdoch's broadcasting service, the value of sport contracts has soared to record levels. Sky claims it has improved the coverage of sporting events.