Murdoch uses tiny channel to grab rights to top football

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The Independent Online
RUPERT MURDOCH has found a way to sidestep ITV's exclusive British rights to show Champion's League football featuring Manchester United, Arsenal and top European clubs such as Barcelona and AC Milan.

Subscribers to BSkyB's analogue broadcasts will be able to watch the matches on an obscure satellite channel, TM3, recently bought by Mr Murdoch's Newscorp - but only if they are prepared to learn German.

Even devoted soccer fans might think it is taking the internationalisation of the sport too far to watch in a foreign language. But at least one of the 15 or so German-language channels regularly beamed over the Astra satellite, although generally ignored by British viewers, will now carry something of interest, at least to football fans.

TM3's German football rights will dilute the exclusivity of ITV's British broadcasting rights and, more importantly, those of its fledgling digital terrestrial partner, OnDigital.

Both companies have run heavy promotion campaigns on the basis of having exclusive, live Champion's League games and have emphasised that they will not be distributing ITV, or its offshoot ITV2, over BSkyB's digital and analogue satellite networks.

On the other hand, with TM3 beamed over Astra, there could be less incentive for BSkyB's near four million analogue subscribers to switch to SkyDigital before 2002. This could dent the multi-million-pound promotional push for Sky's digital service, on to which BSkyB has been trying to tempt new customers by giving away free decoders and dishes.

This odd twist in the perennial battle over broadcast rights for live sport, particularly football, follows Mr Murdoch's pounds 25m buyout of TM3 late last year. The network, which specialised in lifestyle programming for women, has had a paltry 0.6% share of German viewers and is understood to have been losing pounds 15m per year.

German competitors who wondered what Mr Murdoch was up to got their answer in May when Peter Chernin, Newscorp's chief operating officer and the media mogul's officially anointed successor, directed TM3 to pay pounds 250m to land broadcast rights to the Champions League for the next four years.

TM3 has broadcast rights to all Champions League matches and could show some games on free-to-air television and others to subscribers.

The rising significance of the Champions League for both football clubs and broadcasters coincided over the past year with the rebound in ITV viewing figures after years of decline. This year, the competition is to expand from 24 to 32 teams and play games on Wednesday and Thursday.