Five American cable investors in the United Kingdom have struck a major blow in their battle against satellite TV by grabbing all U.K. TV rights to the 1996 Cricket World Cup.

The group, including Comcast, Nynex, Southwestern Bell, Tele-Communications Inc. and US West, paid a reported T7.5 million ($ 11.16 million) for the event, which will be screened on their cable-exclusive sports andlifestyle channel, Wire TV, and on pay-per-view.

Sporting first for cable

This is the first major national sporting event to be acquired by cable operators, outbidding their satellite rival British Sky Broadcasting. The worldwide rights are owned by Connecticut-based WorldTel Inc.

The deal signals a newly aggressive approach to programming by the U.K.’s fledgling cable industry, which will invest an estimated $ 7.5 billion over the next five years to wire British homes. Most of this money will come from American cable and telephone companies.

When BSkyB transmitted the last world cup in 1992, it gave a massive boost to satellite dish sales, and the cable companies are hoping the 1996 edition will give them a similar lift.

At the moment, the U.K. has only about 611,000 cable subscribers, with 2.8 million homes passed. The cable operators are predicting the number of subscribers will reach 2 million by the start of the world cup in two years’ time. About 3 million homes are already equipped with satellite dishes.

By 1996, the cablers also expect to be offering a variety of PPV programming, and they plan to include cricket in the mix. The world cup will comprise 37 one-day matches between national teams including England, Australia, the West Indies, South Africa and the three host countries, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The cable operators are willing to head off any public outcry about the deal by selling highlights of the games to a terrestrial TV network, probably the BBC.

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