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Sky's exclusive cricket deal could be scuppered by Ofcom

LONDON – A legal hitch could still scupper BSkyB's £220m four-year television cricket rights deal, as the broadcaster seeks the OK from media watchdog Ofcom.

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Sky won the exclusive rights to broadcast live TV cricket in a four-year, 2006-2009 deal last month after outbidding its terrestrial rivals. Five managed to claim the highlights package for Test matches after it outbid Channel 4, which bid jointly with Sky.

The deal will remove live coverage of the sport from terrestrial television until 2009.

Under the Broadcasting Act 1996, highlights of Group-B listed events, such as cricket, must be offered to broadcasters on a channel that reaches 95% of the population.

This means ITV and the BBC are now free to lodge a complaint to Ofcom over Sky's exclusive package and Five's highlights deal, because Five does not have full national free-to-air coverage across the UK, giving it less than the 95% that is required by the act.

Having put in a successful bid for the cricket, Five could find itself losing out despite Ofcom saying it is "in the viewers' best interest".

If Ofcom upheld any complaint, the deal could be cancelled. Ofcom is due to make its decision shortly after the consultation closes on February 11.

Sky is believed to have paid a premium of £20m for the exclusive rights, which cover all matches including county cricket and womens' matches.

In the current deal, Channel 4 has the rights to show England home internationals and Sky has the rights to show England away internationals.

The ECB was understood to be split between taking the extra money and ensuring that the game is available to the widest audience. It had originally been expected to announce its decision at the beginning of November.

Its former chairman Lord MacLaurin had called for the ECB to balance the rights between satellite and terrestrial, but Worcestershire chief executive Mark Newton advocated going for the bigger money deal.

The BBC was understood to be interested but declined to make a bid. It held TV cricket rights for decades until 1999, when Channel 4 won them away and became the main broadcaster with Sky.

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