German pols step into World Cup rights battle

BERLIN — The government has stepped in to salvage a deal between pubcasters ARD and ZDF and German media giant Kirch for rights to the 2002 and 2006 World Cup soccer matches.

Talks collapsed last week with the pubcasters unhappy at Kirch’s high price, reportedly DM750 million ($347 million), and hard-bargaining tactics.

Insiders say the main sticking point was Kirch’s refusal to grant the nets a first-buy option for the 2006 games in Germany.

The World Cup matches have always aired on ARD and ZDF, and the thought of the sacred sporting event, which takes place in Japan and South Korea next year, going to commercial TV was too much for even the most conservative of politicians. German Interior Minister Otto Schily criticized the wrangling, saying fans should not be forced to pay for billion-mark business deals.

Other pols are threatening tougher action to make sure Kirch doesn’t put World Cup coverage on money-losing pay TV service Premiere World.

North Rhine-Westphalia parliamentarian Marc Jan Eumann has called for a law guaranteeing that World Cup matches remain on free TV.

The suggestion has found favor with the pubcasters. ARD chairman Fritz Pleitgen praised the U.K. for making sure World Cup matches stay on free commercial or public TV.

Kurt Beck, state leader of the Rhineland-Palatinate and head of the country’s media commission, says he is ordering a review of the country’s media laws. In the meantime, he has demanded that Kirch and the pubcasters go back to the negotiating table.

Erwin Huber, head of Bavaria’s state chancellery, said he has received signals from Kirch that it would be willing to negotiate again.

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