TV industry braced for new assault from BSkyB

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT played a populist game yesterday by extending the protection of football for viewers of BBC and ITV while confirming it would allow Test match cricket to be bought up by BSkyB.

Broadcasting industry fears will now turn to the likelihood that Rupert Murdoch's Sky channel will try to buy up other television institutions and star names.

Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, rejected proposals from a government-appointed committee to allow World Cup matches other than the final, semi-final and home-nation matches to bought up by pay-TV channels.

Under the proposals, games like the Iran v USA World Cup match which last week attracted 10 million viewers would only have been available to subscribers to pay channels.

Mr Smith also added the European Championships to the fully protected list. He said: "I have also concluded that many of the matches in the World Cup and European Championships football qualifying tournaments meet the criteria for listing.

"I believe that it is important that crucial ties in these competitions should be available to all viewers and I therefore intend to seek Europe- wide arrangements for protecting free-to-air live broadcasts of crucial matches in these competitions."

The decision on football will come as a blow to BSkyB which relies heavily on football fans for its viewers. According to industry reports, Sky Sports has lost a mammoth 78 per cent of its viewers during June because of the World Cup finals.

England coach Glenn Hoddle expressed his approval for the package. "I'm delighted when the biggest possible audience sees England's vital matches," he said. "Any plans that ensure that happens in the future, I welcome. I know it is what the fans want. So do I."

However, the decision to place Test match cricket on a newly created "B-list" of partially protected events will almost certainly allow cricket coverage to go to the highest television bidder after 50 years on the BBC.

The B-list will mean cricket appearing as highlights or delayed on terrestrial television after being shown first by the owner of the live rights.

Mr Smith said: "I have asked the Independent Television Commission to consider setting a minimum acceptable standard for such secondary coverage, to include some combination of delayed full coverage, highlights and live radio commentary."

Included on the B-list of events is Five Nations rugby union matches, golf's Ryder Cup and the cricket World Cup, all of which have been bought up by BSkyB for its Sky Sports channels.

Now that Sky has all of the sports it can get, the fear is that the satellite broadcaster's inflationary buying tactics in the sporting world will now spread to other programme genres.

Elisabeth Murdoch, Sky's general manager, is determined to turn her general entertainment channel, Sky One, into a serious rival to BBC 1, ITV and Channel 5.

The satellite channel is launching a digital format in September so that it will then be available via cable and traditional analogue satellite.

Once it is in enough homes, Ms Murdoch wants to stop relying on bought- in American shows like The Simpsons and ER. British audiences are one of the most resistant in the world to foreign programming and Sky knows it needs to attract big British shows and stars.

Ms Murdoch gave warning of her plans two weeks ago. "We've increased our original programming budget by 100 per cent his year," she said.

"A broadcaster has to be relevant to the community it serves, you cannot do that if you rely solely on acquired programming - people may as well go into a video store."

Every time Granada's contract for Coronation Street comes up for re-negotiation with the ITV Network a flurry of scare stories appear about it moving to Sky. And it is undoubtedly true that Sky would snap up the soap if it had the opportunity. Sky has already secured the services of one television institution, the film critic Barry Norman, and has in the past shown interest in Des Lynam and Jeremy Paxman.

Because Sky has managed to find a new way of funding a television business - by subscription rather than advertising, its pockets are deep. It is forecast to make pounds 290m in profits this year and so will increasingly target the kind of programmes that will help sell its services.

As well as established stars like Cilla Black or David Jason, the channel is likely to have in its sights the kind of performers who bring in the young affluent audiences who are happy to pay for television channels. It already has a programme development deal with Chris Evans, and others like Harry Enfield, Frank Skinner and David Baddiel, and Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer are likely targets.

Even if Sky cannot attract the stars to its fold, its interest will push up prices for terrestrial broadcasters.

Pay Television's Wish List

TV Institutions

David Jason

Des Lynam

Cilla Black

Jeremy Paxman

Coronation Street

Test Cricket

For Youth Appeal

Nick Berry

Robson Green

Harry Enfield

Skinner & Baddiel

Reeves & Mortimer