ITV crisis blurs Cup picture

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Television coverage of the World Cup has been thrown into chaos following the financial collapse of ITV Digital. ITV recently won the rights to the next two World Cups, in 2003 and 2007, on the understanding they would broadcast matches on two channels.

The existence of a digital channel was attractive to the International Rugby Board: major matches in the tournament would be shown on the main channel, others on digital, but if the channel cease to exist the World Cup is left with a huge problem.

In rugby parlance, ITV's apparent coup was an interception. The BBC submitted a bid in the region of £30 million and thought they had the field to themselves. ITV, criticised over their coverage of the 1999 World Cup, came in with a slightly higher offer which won the approval of the IRB. "Having said they weren't going for it, ITV came in at the last minute and the result was a fait accompli," said a BBC spokesman. "We were never asked for a counter-bid."

It is understood that ITV, currently embroiled in the ITV Digital débâcle, have not yet signed a long-form contract with the IRB. ITV Digital, who have gone into administration owing the Football League £178m, have underwritten at least part of the World Cup bid.

If the event is shown on ITV it could be on the ITV 2 channel, which is also available on Sky. However, if ITV Digital go into liquidation the picture is bleak. With the World Cup being staged in Australia, the time difference means the matches would fit into GMTV airtime, a slot not synonymous with rugby. The same goes for ITV Digital, who are showing the World Series Sevens to a negligible audience. When ITV were given the World Cup it was on the condition they would also highlight the Sevens.

After losing the World Cup, the BBC are poised to secure the next best thing, the Six Nations' Championship. Plugging the line that the game should return to its natural home, the BBC submitted their tender to the Six Nations committee last week, and although Channel 5 and Channel 4 are inter-ested, Sky have pulled out.

At present, coverage of rugby is fragmented, with Sky taking England's matches at Twickenham, plus the Zurich Premiership. The RFU, much to the disgust of the other home unions, had struck a joint satellite-terrestrial deal, with the BBC getting "as live" coverage of England's matches outside the Six Nations. "We want all of the Six Nations live," Pat Younge, head of planning for BBC Sport, said. "Others can offer cash, we can offer cash plus exposure." Sky's £65m five-year deal ran out last month and from next season they will concentrate on the autumn Tests and the domestic game.

Meanwhile, the BBC, who only showed one-third of England's Triple Crown this season and none of their Hong Kong Sevens triumph, are relieved to announce that Italy v England will be on BBC1 today, following EastEnders.