Huge rises in satellite sport prices anger pubs

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The Independent Online

Huge increases in subscription charges for BSkyB television have prompted publicans to complain to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) over the satellite station's pricing policies.

Many pubs in three of the leading brewery chains have decided to stop screening BSkyB, particularly popular for its sports coverage, when faced with as much as a quadrupling of prices.

The furore is bound to intensify the storm surrounding BSkyB as the deadline for submissions to the OFT's inquiry into the broadcaster's near-monopoly of film and sport for pay-television passes this Friday.

Small cable operators which buy BSkyB at wholesale prices complained that its control of conditional access technology for scrambling and unscrambling the signals was an abuse of its position in the market.

Yesterday, the former Secretary of State for National Heritage, David Mellor, joined the fray, adding his weight to moves to amend the Broadcasting Bill to prevent BSkyB buying up eight major sporting events which would disappear from terrestrial television.

He hailed the eight events - the Olympics, the football World Cup, Test cricket, Wimbledon, the Grand National, The Derby, the FA Cup final and the Scottish FA Cup final - as the "crown jewels of sport".

But David Elstein, head of programming at BSkyB, heaped scorn on the cross-party moves and said the only people to suffer from a clampdown would be the sports' governing bodies which would lose out financially.

Now, as well as fears over BSkyB dominance of major sporting events, there is anger over subscription charges.

Major sporting events shown exclusively on BSkyB, such as Frank Bruno's world boxing championship bout, can be a big draw: 10 million viewers were said to have watched, an estimated 6.5m in the pub. But angry landlords faced with hefty bills - as much as pounds 120 a month for a large pub - and threats of being cut off complained bitterly.

In a letter to the OFT, the Brewers and Licensed Retailers' Association accused BSkyB of acting in an "arrogant and high-handed" manner in introducing a "new and totally unreasonable tariff for the public viewing of their satellite TV programmes in pubs".

OFT officials are still examining the complaint to decide if the matter should be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Brewers Bass and Whitbread are reviewing their position, but Scottish & Newcastle, Greene King and Greenalls, have already dropped BSkyB from some of their pubs.

Of Scottish & Newcastle's 1,950 managed pubs, 102 no longer have BSkyB. Chris Ripper, the personnel and trading director, said: "We did not welcome the sudden, steep increase in rates in our pubs, which in some cases was 314 per cent.

"Screenings of sports on Sky do not generate significant incremental profit for our pubs, although they are enjoyed and expected by customers in some houses."

At the Bellevue Hotel, Lee-on-the-Solent, Hampshire, where the cost for showing BSkyB in the bar rose from pounds 12 a month in 1994 to pounds 130, the owner could not afford to pull the plug because of the business he would lose.

But Peter Driscoll, the deputy manager, said that the increased business from events did not meet the higher charges. "We would suffer a loss of trade if we took it out," he said. "... the thing that's really annoying is that no one there would listen to reason or argument. You pay or they threaten to cut you off. It's really worrying when they are after more monopoly sporting events."

BSkyB maintained that its new pricing structure linked to rateable values introduced last September represented a fairer system and reflected the increasing coverage of international sporting events. A spokesman said about 30,000 pubs and clubs already took the service, with 10,000 new subscribers each year, and few were dropping the coverage.