ITV soaps threatened by football boycott

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The Independent Online

ITV could face a drop in ratings for its most popular programmes after football fans were urged yesterday to mount a boycott unless the company honours a £315m deal to show Nationwide League games.

The chairman of the Football League, Keith Harris, asked supporters to switch off soaps such as Coronation Street and Emmerdale in protest at ITV Digital's attempt to renegotiate the fees it agreed to pay for broadcasting fixtures.

Mr Davis said ITV's behaviour in trying to escape its £105m-a-year deal cast doubt over its whole reputation, including the validity of prizes on the quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

His escalation of the rhetoric employed in the bitter wrangle between ITV Digital, its owners – Carlton and Granada – and the League, came at the start of what could be a decisive week for the digital station. The prospect of appointing administrators will be high on the agenda when senior executives at ITV Digital meet today to discuss the chances of finding a solution.

The company has said that if it is not allowed to cut its payment to £185m over three years it will have no choice but to go into administration, putting 2,000 jobs at risk. Mr Harris held out no prospect of compromise yesterday, saying dozens of clubs had already included money from the television deal in their budgets and could go under if it was taken away.

"We are urging football fans to tell the ITV companies what they think of them," he said. "The average football fan is probably the average Coronation Street watcher. You can use your own imagination; if he doesn't watch football and he doesn't watch Coronation Street, what damage will that do to the ITV companies?"

Mr Harris said estimates for the number of clubs that could go out of business without the television money ranged from 30 to 50. "I think you are looking at a figure in the middle of that range. It is a tragedy for football, without question. It's a tragedy for the community," he said.

Mr Harris denied that ITV had been pushed into paying too much for the rights during a bidding war with BSkyB and the BBC. He said it made the highest bid and should honour its agreement. "At the moment what they are doing is threatening," he said. "If they honour what they owe us we can put this behind us. It makes you wonder about the validity of the cheques Chris Tarrant is handing out."

Mr Harris said the League believed it had "the strongest possible legal case" against ITV Digital, Carlton and Granada. The League is understood to intend pursuing lost commercial advertising of about £300m as well as the money outstanding from the original contract.

ITV Digital was already suffering from the poor response to digital services, but it has been pushed to the verge of collapse by paying massive fees for the football rights in 2000 only to find they completely failed to pull in large numbers of new subscribers.

The company refused to comment yesterday beyond saying its "absolute priority" was to find a workable solution. However, one source stressed that its reduced offer was still 250 per cent higher than the amount previously paid by Sky and the clubs' real problem was the inflated wages given to players. If a compromise was not found "within weeks", ITV Digital would go under – leaving the League with nothing, the source said.