LEADING ARTICLE: Mr Murdoch thinks the game is in the bag: it isn't

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The Independent Online
Imagine living rooms where top sport is banished without choice. No excitement in May when the Cup Final comes round. No cries of anguish over Wimbledon finals in July. No roars of encouragement to the favourite in the National. The sound of leather on willow at Lords is absent, the chance to see the Linford Christies of the future denied.

To generations brought up on the voices which have defined our sports Richie Benaud and John Arlott on cricket, Dan Maskell on tennis, Bill McLaren on rugby, such a prospect may seem inconceivable. To the sports- averse it may seem like heaven. But such a sports blackout in millions of homes could easily happen.

Satellite broadcasters, particularly Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB, are plundering their deep pockets to buy exclusive rights to the best of British sport. Those who cannot afford to subscribe to Sky or who do not have access to cable could soon be left to view only second-rate competition provided by the traditional broadcasters.

We are moving away from the old world of television sport. We cannot and should not halt the shift. In the old world spectators were relatively poorly served by unimaginative coverage provided by the relatively complacent BBC and ITV. The sums these terrestial broadcasters paid for the rights to show sports like football were not enough to allow those running the sports to invest in new facilities or foreign talent.

In the world we are moving into everyone has more choice, at least in theory. The emergence of digital television, combined with satellite and cable should create many more channels for sport. So spectators should be better catered for with more channels to choose between, offering more professional coverage. The competition between these new broadcasters should mean there is more money to be invested in the sports. This is already happening. BSkyB is offering huge sums to acquire the rights to show sports like football. Some of that money has been ploughed back into the foreign stars who grace the premiership and the vastly improved stadiums they play in.

All well and good but before we get to the promised land of the new world of digital television there is a large obstacle to overcome: the growing power of Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB. It is trying to buy up a captive audience by buying up the sports people like watching. That means excluding sports fans who cannot afford a Sky subscription.

It doesn't seem right. Public concern is so great that it seems finally to have convinced a majority of MPs to curb Mr Murdoch. Next week, a backbench amendment to the Broadcasting Bill will be debated, backed by MPs drawn from all parties. It would make it illegal for satellite and cable broadcasters to secure exclusive rights to the "crown jewels" of sport: the Olympics, the World Cup, FA Cup and Scottish FA Cup finals, domestic Test matches, Wimbledon, the Grand National and the Derby.

The Government has failed to understand public fears for these events. Yesterday's announcement by Virginia Bottomley, the National Heritage Secretary - that she does not wish to curb Sky's sporting acquisitions - was a mistake. Mrs Bottomley must appreciate that nine-tenths of the population do not have satellite television. Many of these viewers would feel justifiably aggrieved at being deprived of access to great national sporting events. Something must be done to make sure everyone has an opportunity to watch them.

Mrs Bottomley contends that interfering with the television contracts negotiated by sporting bodies could do more harm than good to sport. Sky has shaken up the cosy BBC/ITV duopoly, expanded sports coverage and made available vast sums which are being pumped into new stadiums and better facilities.

None of the major sporting bodies would want to go back to the old pre- Sky days when they had little option other than to take what was offered by the BBC or ITV.

Yet there are also dangers in taking Mr Murdoch's money, as Rugby league is finding out. Rugby league - whose matches were bought up by Rupert Murdoch for pounds 87m - has had to switch its matches from winter to the summer to fit in with Sky's requirements. As a sport it has been changed dramatically to suit television. If the venture does not work out, if viewers don't like the programmes, rugby league will be dumped as brutally as an unpopular sit-com.

Perhaps for that reason the International Olympic Committee this week turned down Sky's bid to cover the Olympics from 2002 to 2008 in favour of a lower joint offer from Europe's public broadcasters. The IOC judged that the bigger audience secured by groups such as the BBC would best achieve its ends - the promotion of amateurism, internationalism and less well-known sports.

BSkyB almost collapsed soon after its launch. Yet its power is now such that it needs to be checked. This does not simply mean protecting the "crown jewels". That will suffice as a short-term measure. The long-term goal must be to created a more open and competitive market in bidding for television rights to sports. There is a strong argument for referring his television interests immediately to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, which would examine how Sky controls access to satellite capacity, how it controls billing systems for customers and is able to make deals with programme suppliers which shut out other broadcasters.

Another move would be to insist that rights to sports events are "unbundled" so that if BSkyB has the rights to live coverage, terrestial broadcasters have to be able to show highlights and repeats.

Ways must be found to enable cable companies to compete on a level playing field with Sky, which at the moment dictates the terms on which film and sport programming is supplied to cable operators. The BBC must also think about the possibility of entering the subscription television market. This seems to be the only way in which it will be able to battle with Sky in the bidding to cover big events.

Whatever the solutions - regulation first, followed by increased competition would be the best way forward - Mrs Bottomley's strategy of doing nothing is untenable. It is time to take on Mr Murdoch.