Sky and cable in fresh skirmish

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The Independent Online
Fresh hostilities have erupted in the long-simmering battle between BSkyB, Rupert Murdoch's satellite broadcaster, and UK cable operators, with each side accusing the other of spreading disinformation and misleading customers.

Complaints by International CableTel and one other operator have been deposited with the Independent Television Commission, accusing BSkyB of a "dirty tricks" campaign aimed at convincing customers to switch to satellite. One BSkyB tactic, the cable operators complained, was to suggest that cable customers risked having channels dropped without warning in the future. The satellite broadcaster is also accused of unfairly comparing prices between the rival services.

BSkyB has responded with similar charges, accusing cable operators of spreading misleading information about the Sky multichannel package. For instance, some customers have allegedly been told they will no longer receive BSkyB's analogue service of more than 40 channels once the new digital package is introduced at the end of the year. In fact, BSkyB has promised to broadcast in analogue and digital for the foreseeable future.

The ITC has written to all UK cable operators, asking them to respond to BSkyB's charges by 24 January.

The intervention by the TV regulator follows a long-running campaign by cable companies to force action against what they view as anti-competitive behaviour by BSkyB. But a six-month inquiry by the Office of Fair Trading controversially cleared the company of the charge in June. Since then, a new rate card establishing the terms and prices of BSkyB's supply of pay-TV programming to the cable industry has been introduced. Cable operators said the rate card, which sets the price of popular Sky programmes such as films and sport, was still unfair, and have threatened the OFT with judicial review and an appeal to Brussels.

The appeal to the ITC by International CableTel was dismissed by BSkyB. A senior source said it was a further example of "whingeing" by cable operators.