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Four finds ‘Friends’

U.K. net also wrestles 'ER' from BSkyB

LONDON — Channel 4 has grabbed “Friends” and “ER” back from BSkyB in a three-year deal with Warner Bros. Intl. TV, reportedly worth $200 million.

The terrestrial web outbid the satcaster for U.K. pay TV rights to three seasons from 2001, as well as renewing its existing free TV deal for the two shows. It also picked up a package of other Warner programs.

C4 is likely to use “Friends” and “ER” as the backbone for a new digital pay channel, dubbed E4, which is on the drawing board for launch next year.

Future undetermined

But C4 may yet decide to sell the pay TV rights to BSkyB instead. Discussions are currently under way between the two broadcasters about the future of the Warner shows.

“Friends” and “ER” first aired in the U.K. on C4. But since 1996, the rights have been split between BSkyB and C4, with the shows premiering on Sky One before moving to C4 for their terrestrial run. “Friends” is among the top-rated shows on both networks, while “ER” also pulls in solid audiences.

The new all-rights deal with C4 starts in 2001, and covers the seventh, eighth and ninth seasons of “Friends.” The sixth season of “Friends” is currently airing in the U.S., and will get its U.K. premiere on Sky One in January.

Changing landscape

Jeffrey Schlesinger, president of WBITV, said, “The sale of the pay and free TV rights together is a reflection of the changing landscape of the television media in the U.K. It was very clear to us that the greatest value for ‘Friends’ could be obtained by offering a broadcaster the ability to control exposure and windows of this very valuable franchise.”

Michael Jackson, chief exec of Channel 4, commented, “Warner Bros offered us the ability to acquire terrestrial and pay rights as a single package, and so we have struck a deal that protects the money and effort we have invested in making these shows some of U.K. television’s most sought-after properties.”

Rare defeat

BSkyB rushed to downplay its rare defeat in the bidding war. Elisabeth Murdoch, managing director of Sky Networks, said, “We simply felt that $200 million was too high for an acquired series that, by 2003, is set to enter its ninth season and is not firmly exclusive to any one broadcaster.”

While pointing out that Sky may yet buy the rights for future series from C4, Murdoch claimed that her priority is now to “put money into the British creative community and develop new exclusive British franchises.”

James Baker, general manager of Sky One, added, “The money we have freed up by this move will help us build on Sky One’s winning mix of the best original U.K. and first-run U.S. programs.”

A Warner spokesman declined comment on the value of the deal.

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