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Hitch delays BBC satellite plans

THE BBC's controversial plans to expand into satellite television with services tailored for British viewers have hit legal problems, which are a factor delaying the start of the proposed UK Gold channel of comedy repeats and drama, to be jointly owned by Thames Television.

David Glencross, chief executive of the Independent Television Commission, which issues satellite licences, said yesterday that under the Broadcasting Act the BBC was disqualified from holding a licence. The question, he said, was whether it was also disqualified from holding shares and voting rights as a minority shareholder.

The BBC opted in April to take a 20 per cent shareholding in UK Gold. This level appears to be based on the shareholding which would be acceptable for any ITV company seeking a stake in a UK satellite service. The restrictions are designed to prevent too much concentration of media control.

The ITC, Mr Glencross said, was not trying to prevent expansion. 'If you have a new legislative framework designed to open up the market you can't ring fence ITV and the BBC and say things are only open to new players. But the competition must be fair.'

BBC Enterprises said: 'We are fully confident that the structure of BBC Enterprises involvement in UK Gold is within the Broadcasting Act.'

The Association of Independent Radio Contractors yesterday urged the Government to restrict BBC Radio to supplying programming which is not provided by the commercial sector. Its chairman, Stewart Francis, said: 'BBC local radio stations have tried to compete with independent local radio as music stations, when they should concentrate on speech; Radio 3 has repositioned itself to resist the 'popular classics' of Classic FM and I'll wager Radio 1 is developing its plans to scupper the second national commercial radio station, Independent Music Radio, when it comes on air next spring. This is madness.'

Greg Dyke, chairman of the Independent Television Association, said that BSkyB may be over- estimating the number of satellite dishes installed. Sky this week said there were 2.46 million. GFK Marketing Services estimated 1.77 million.