BSkyB, Virgin Media fight turns ugly

Cable company claims broadcaster has pulled channels

LONDON — Europe’s leading pay box, BSkyB, has threatened to pull key channels from Virgin Media unless the cabler agrees to pay almost double the rate for carrying the stations, according to Virgin Media CEO Steve Burch.

Burch told BBC Radio Friday that he had never before heard of a broadcaster threatening to pull its channels and accused the satcaster of deploying “bullying” tactics.

Negotiations over the carriage of entertainment webs Sky One, Two and Three plus Sky News and Sports News on Virgin — the rebranded NTL — have become increasingly tense.

But this is the first time both parties have gone on the record as the deadline for the present agreement expires at the end of the month.

On BBC Radio, Burch, a U.S. cable veteran, said: “We frankly believe they never had an intent to reach an agreement with us.

“All their actions — advertising, bullying tactics claiming we didn’t care about BSkyB’s basic package — and the price they asked was just so far out of reality, we just believe it was engineered so we wouldn’t reach an agreement.

“We sat down and negotiated with them in good faith. Last night we made a final offer.

“They not only rejected it but indicated they were not going to go further with negotiations even though the contract didn’t expire until next week.

“And they indicated to us that they had planned a PR campaign for this weekend to show we wouldn’t be carrying Sky Basics any more.”

BSkyB insisted that it had not “pulled” its channels.

In a statement it said: “With several days remaining and active discussions continuing, we’re surprised and disappointed that NTL/Virgin chose to go on national radio to attack BSkyB and suggest, prematurely, that their customers will miss out on BSkyB basic channels from March 1.”

BSkyB claimed it is offering Virgin more than even before, including HD services and new channels such as Sky Three and Sky Arts.

The satcaster said that it had increased its investment in its basic channels by 68% during the last five years.

“Our goal is a reasonable price that reflects the benefits that we bring to NTL/Virgin customers. Our last offer remains on the table,” added BSkyB.

“We categorically reject their claims that we have broken off negotiations or that we are seeking to more than double the price of these channels.”

The talks do not include carriage of BSkyB’s premium sports and movie channels.

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