ITV in surprise £500m bid to screen live soccer

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Live Premier League football will be shown on terrestrial television for the first time in years if a surprise £500m plan by ITV to capture the rights succeeds.

The independent broadcaster's bid, which is believed to be worth £500m over three years, was handed in to the Premier League on Wednesday. It has raised the possibility that viewers without digital or cable television may still be able to see live games. It had been assumed that the next set of live rights, which come into effect the season after next, would be cornered by a combination of the digital operators BSkyB and ONdigital, and NTL, the cable company.

Ordinary licence fee-paying viewers have been denied the chance to watch live top division football ever since the Premier League was formed in 1992. BSkyB won the first set of exclusive rights and in 1996 paid £673m to renew its contract for the next five years. Cable and ONdigital customers are able to see the action because BSkyB sells its pictures on to other broadcasters.

Terrestrial viewers have to make do with highlights of league games or the occasional live cup game. The current contract expires at the end of next season and for the next contract the Premier League has decided that no single broadcaster will be granted the chance to show games exclusively. Instead, the rights have been separated into several packages, notably a set of 66 live games, a bundle of 40 fixtures to be shown on a pay-per-view basis, and two highlights packages over the weekend.

The fragmented nature of the action on offer means that ITV has a good chance of finding the money to secure some of the live matches. Their bid is being masterminded by Brian Barwick, ITV's head of sport who left the BBC two years ago.

There is speculation that ITV has teamed up with ONdigital to make its bid. ONdigital is owned jointly by Carlton and Granada, which between them own seven regional ITV franchises; a partnership between the two would make strategic sense.

ITV is also expected to fight tooth and nail to deprive BBC of its flagship Match of the Dayprogramme. Greg Dyke, the BBC's director-general, has ruled the corporation out of a bid for live action on grounds of cost. However, he is desperate to retain Match of the Day.

The Premier League will make its decision by the beginning of July.

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