Subscription TV finds an ally at the BBC as sports battle rages

The fight to keep sports events like the Cup Final off ‘pay-TV’ has not been aided by the new BBC boss’s views on the subject. By Torin Douglas. Torin Douglas is BBC TV’s media correspondent

The new BBC chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, caused something of a stir last week when he said the Corporation would probably have to launch its own sports channel if it wanted to remain a major player in TV sports. In his first Today interview on Radio 4, he conceded that, in the long term, the BBC might have to charge viewers a subscription – as Sky Sports does – to afford the rapidly escalating fees demanded by the sports rights bodies.

This analysis might well be correct, and by admitting it the BBC’s new boss showed he is not prepared to duck difficult issues – such as what impact this “extra” channel would have on the principle of the universal licence fee. But politically it might not have been the time to make such an admission.

For politicians of all parties are this week queuing up to table amendments to the Broadcasting Bill to stop subscription channels buying up exclusive access to the top sports events. They are headed by former Heritage Secretary David Mellor, who proclaimed in the Daily Mail, over a big picture of Rupert Murdoch: “Why this man must not be allowed to ruin British sport.” His outburst was prompted by the news that Murdoch’s News Corporation is bidding for the rights to the Olympic Games from the year 2000.

Other politicians may get their amendments in first, for the Bill will start in the House of Lords. Labour’s Lord Donoghue and the Liberal Democrat Lord Thomson of Monifieth (former chairman of the Independent Broadcasting Authority) are also keen to ensure top sport stays on terrestrial channels.

Their focus is on the so-called “listed events” – those sports events deemed to be of national importance, such as the FA Cup Final, the Olympics, the World Cup Finals, the Grand National and home Test Matches. The current Act stops them being shown exclusively on a “pay-per-view” basis, but they could still be screened on a satellite subscription channel. Mellor’s amendment would extend the ban to subscription services, while others are hoping to extend the “list” itself, to include the Open Golf (Sky Sports already has the Ryder Cup) and the Five Nations rugby internationals (for which BSkyB has bid).

BSkyB is robustly defending itself. Head of programming David Elstein says that for years TV got sport on the cheap because a cartel between the BBC and ITV held down the price of sports rights. He maintains another cartel involving the BBC – the European Broadcasting Union – has stopped Sky getting access to the last two Olympics, so it’s not surprising Rupert Murdoch should have put in his own bid.

“Why should the BBC think it’s all right to pay the market rate for Anthea Turner and not for sports rights?” he demands.

Of course, the BBC already has an interest in subscription television, overseas through BBC Prime, and in the UK through its stake in UK Gold. A principle has been established, even though these are “repeats” channels, whereas a subscription sports channel would be offering programmes not im mediately available to all licence-payers.

UK Gold has started 1996 in aggressive fashion, launching three new “mini-channels” and withdrawing its service from the Videotron cable systems in London and Southampton because it cannot agree terms. Both moves herald battles ahead in the world of multi-channel, subscription-funded TV.

Bruce Steinberg, UK Gold’s chief executive, says its new “mini-channels” or “sub-brands” – actually prime blocks of the station’s weekend airtime – are preparation for the coming digital revolution. “Masterpiece”, on Sunday at 8pm, will show high-quality drama, mostly from the BBC, ranging from Elizabeth R and Poldark to Boys from the Blackstuff. “Spotlight”, on Saturday nights, will show drama and films on a single theme, starting with Theatre of War, including Colditz, Tenko and Danger UXB.

But they are also a response to competition from the Granada/BSkyB satellite channels which will be launched later this year, headed by “Granada Gold”. Steinberg gamely calls the choice of name “incredibly flattering”. Others might say it’s turning the word “Gold” into a generic term for old hits, as in radio – but Steinberg insists UK Gold is an “incredibly strong brand, like Capital Gold”.

So strong, he says, it is prepared to sacrifice two per cent of its potential audience by pulling off the Videotron cable networks in a row over pricing and “tiering”. Steinberg insists UK Gold should be part of every cable operator’s “basic” package, so it reaches at least 95 per cent of cable homes. Videotron wants to give viewers greater flexibility, letting them buy each channel ” la carte”, and is refusing to pay a penalty charge for the privilege.

The row highlights a fundamental issue for the future of multi-channel television. BSkyB and most cable operators believe “more choice” is what will sell satellite and cable, which is why they offer packages of channels for an all-in price.

Videotron says most viewers only want a handful of extra channels and should just pay for the ones they choose. It claims other cable operators are coming round to its view.

Conundrums like this – philosophical as well as practical – will determine what the BBC can offer its viewers during the next ten years, and how they will pay.

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