Kirch, Euro b’casters fight Cup cold war

8 countries have yet to secure TV rights

PARIS — With only nine months before the soccer World Cup in Japan and Korea kicks off, nerves are fraying in Europe as rights holder Kirch Group and broadcasters continue to wage their own cold war.

Eight European countries have yet to secure TV rights, including France, the U.K. and Italy, as broadcasters accuse the German media kingpin of being too greedy in its demands for cash.

It is said to be asking 1 billion francs ($139 million) for the French rights — as much as pubcaster France Television spends on all sporting rights in a whole year. Charles Bietry, the pubcaster’s sports chief and a key figure in the negotiations, has vowed, “We are not ready to give in.”

A week earlier, the eye of the soccer storm was on the other side of the English Channel. Media mogul Leo Kirch complained to a U.K. media watchdog that pubcaster the BBC and commercial broadcaster ITV were acting as a cartel by teaming up to make a joint offer of $57 million. Kirch is demanding $244 million for the U.K. rights.

The company paid soccer’s international governing body FIFA some $500 million for European TV rights to the 2002 World Cup, and another $600 million for the 2006 contest, ending the practice of selling direct to broadcasters.

It strengthened its position even further by picking up rights to the rest of the world, including the U.S., when rival rights trader ISL went bankrupt earlier this year.

Tres cher

While Kirch is cashing in on its position (or hoping to), Euro broadcasters feel the price it is asking is too high, given that many matches will kick off while viewers are still tucked in bed because of the time difference between Japan and Europe. Euro webs also are reluctant to dig deep into their pockets because of the ongoing ad slump.

But with scaremongers wondering if next year’s footie contest will ever reach some Euro TV screens, the propaganda war took a fresh political turn last week. France’s sports minister, Marie-George Buffet, revealed that she planned to fire off a letter to the international football organization.

“She is committed to telling FIFA how worried we are, and that the French government plans to be vigilant,” a ministry insider tells Variety. “When the World Cup was in France four years ago, it was a worldwide party, but now that Kirch — the king of pay TV — has a monopoly, it has become all about money.”

The French media has weighed into the debate, with the economic daily La Tribune roundly accusing Kirch of “blackmail.”

Laid-back attitude

But Kirch is playing it cool. It already has a batch of deals under its belt including a $183 million pact in Spain. In Germany the intervention of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was instrumental in pubcasters ARD and ZDF acquiring the rights for $110 million.

It also struck a deal last week with Belgium’s Flemish-lingo pubcaster VRT. Tellingly, figures were not released.

Kirch says it is talking with “a number of French channels, not only TF1 and France Television” and is “sure that the World Cup will be shown on French television.”

Dismissing the Euro brouhaha, a spokesman purrs: “Negotiations so far have been very cordial. I’m sure we’ll eventually reach agreements with all of the European broadcasters.”

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