ONdigital in the saddle for racecourse TV rights

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The Independent Online

ONdigital, the broadcaster owned by Carlton and Granada, has joined the jockeying for position in the hotly contested battle to acquire horse racing's television rights.

ONdigital, the broadcaster owned by Carlton and Granada, has joined the jockeying for position in the hotly contested battle to acquire horse racing's television rights.

The digital group, which expects to have one million subscribers by the end of the year, is understood to have approached Britain's racecourses with an indicative offer.

If it succeeds, ONdigital would gain an important advantage over BSkyB, its rival in the battle to sign up British homes for digital television, and the cable companies NTL and Telewest.

ONdigital would offer live racing on its new dedicated sports channel, which will also boast coverage of Nationwide football, the rights to which it will hold from August, 2001.

NTL was part of a consortium with Channel 4 and the BBC which last month was poised to clinch a deal with the Racecourse Association (RCA).

However, the inability of the Super 12 leading tracks and the other 47 courses to agree on the deal prompted the consortium to walk away.

Many of the smaller courses blanched at the consortium's preference for offering a greater share of future interactive betting revenue at the expense of the annual retainer. Since then, racecourse owner, Arena, has emerged as the favourite to secure the rights.

Arena, a quoted company which owns Lingfield and Folkestone racecourses, is offering the courses a guaranteed £178m for 10 years of interactive media rights.

Coupled with the £150m, which racing's terrestrial rights are expected to sell for, the sport is expecting an injection worth well over £300m for the next decade.

However, some of the courses which make up the Super 12 are thought to be opposed to Arena's offer and would countenance a bid from ONdigital or a renewal of Channel 4's offer.

There is also disquiet among some of the smaller tracks at the prospect that their television rights should be acquired by a company which owns rival courses.

The current non-terrestrial contract, which is operated by satellite broadcaster SIS, expires in November, although it is now unlikely that any of the other bidders will be ready to provide a dedicated channel by that time.

The RCA, which is being advised by Hawkpoint, the merchant bank, is expected to go into exclusive negotiations with one of the bidders a fortnight tomorrow. A deal should be signed next month.

Meanwhile, the flurry of interest in its non-terrestrial rights has prompted the racing industry to appoint a media adviser, to be named this week, to handle the sale of its terrestrial rights.

Although ONdigital is losing its tooth-and-nail battle with Sky Digital for new digital subscribers, it will be boosted by the proposed acquisition by Granada of the ITV franchises owned by United News & Media.

The deal is expected to bring ITV's ownership into line with ONdigital's.

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