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Kirch and the sporting steamroller

Not content with ruffling the feathers of Formula 1 car manufacturers, who are worried that its new-found interest in the sport could force it on to pay TV, Kirch is now having a go at UK broadcasting legislation and World Cup football.

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Having wrested the rights for the World Cup from the European Broadcasting Union last year for a vastly inflated price, the German media giant -- which finally seems to realise that it overpaid for the rights -- appears to be trying to get its money back any way it can. However, it looks like it is too late.

The problem is that the matches will be played during the day when people in Europe are at work, so the value of the tournament to the UK TV industry is a lot less than if it was on at primetime. Sensibly, both the BBC and ITV have refused to pay the exorbitant amount demanded.

But so desperate is Leo Kirch, founder and owner of the media empire which dominates the German pay-TV market, to get his money back that he has now filed a complaint against the two with the Office of Fair Trading.

The gist of Kirch's bugbear is that the BBC and ITV will not play along with its plans to sell them, or any other willing broadcaster for that matter, 64 live World Cup matches for a reported £171m. Leo says they are acting like a "cartel" because they refuse to negotiate with him separately.

The BBC and ITV united against Kirch in July because they believed that the German pay-TV giant was trying to drive a wedge between them. This would, in turn, endanger their chances of picking up the rights and leave the way clear for a pay-TV company like Sky to enter the fray.

Even Sky, which is not allowed to bid for the rights under current UK broadcasting law, has said it will not enter the auction because the rights are too expensive. In April, the company said it will not be used by Kirch because it has "overvalued the European rights for the event without doing its homework".

The matter is also in the hands of the EU. Kirch is trying to annul UK broadcasting legislation, which rules that sports such as the World Cup, Wimbledon and the Olympics are listed events and must be available for all to watch on free-to-air TV.

Despite all this attention and the fracas that Kirch is creating, there has been little reaction from all concerned.

When Formula 1 was threatened with being broadcast to a limited pay-TV audience, the car manufacturers threatened to set up a rival championship because its free-to-air status generates such colossal advertising and sponsorship revenues.

Kirch was quick to allay their fears, because the future of the sport it had just paid £1bn to be a part of was in jeopardy.

If Kirch is allowed to steamroller its way into every sport, as it appears to be getting away with in the World Cup debacle, fears that all premium sport will be viewed with a price tag will start to become reality.

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