Pay up - and watch the game

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The Independent Online
The latest football deal between BSkyB and the Football League underscores the degree to which sport has become the driving force of pay television. It also confirms that the broadcasters, and not the game itself, will dictate how rights are divided.

The money on offer is outrageous. When the Premier League deal is renewed, probably sometime next year, British football will probably fetch nearly pounds 250m a year for TV rights - or nearly pounds 1bn by 2000.

But that is only the beginning. With the introduction of digital TV from 1997, the way is open for wall-to-wall sports on a pay-per-view basis. The average viewer with a decoder will get 18 "over-the-air" channels, while satellite subscribers could receive as many as 200. Above all other programming, sport will be the driver for digital - as Sky has already realised.

The big winner among broadcasters, at least so far, has been BSkyB, 40 per cent owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. Its control of Premier League matches on television has helped make it the most profitable TV company in the UK, earning pounds 155m last year, and now boasting nearly 4.2m subscribers.

Sky's very success could pose problems, as competitors look to barge in on a market that has proved so profitable. Already, the ITV company Carlton has looked closely at the possibility of bidding, while other broadcasters, including a handful from the Continent, may form consortia in an attempt to wrest the rights away from Sky.