German conglom in line for worldwide licenses

BERLIN — German media giant Kirch Group has acquired the U.S. TV and radio rights to the World Cup soccer championships in 2002 and 2006.

Company’s free-TV, production and licensing division Kirch Media, which already controls European rights to the games, obtained the rights from world soccer association FIFA for an undisclosed sum.

Kirch said it is in talks with a number of U.S. broadcasters who are interested in airing the World Cup, which is being held in Japan and South Korea in 2002 and in Germany in 2006. Company expects to ink a deal by June.

Munich-based Kirch also has an option to acquire worldwide rights to the World Cup from embattled Swiss sports rights marketer ISMM, which is on the verge of bankruptcy. A rescue offer from Vivendi Universal is being reviewed by a Swiss insolvency court with a decision due at the end of the month.

If ISMM were to go belly-up, worldwide rights would revert to FIFA. Kirch could then exercise its option to obtain those rights for an estimated $650 million.

While a Kirch spokesman would not comment on ongoing negotiations with German pubcasters ARD and ZDF over domestic broadcast rights, the parties are reportedly close to an agreement.

Some ARD regional affiliates had threatened to vote against the purchase, citing the hefty DM 255 million ($117 million) pricetag and what they see as unwarranted demands from Kirch, like encoding digital transmission of the games to keep viewers in neighboring countries from receiving the broadcasts.

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