Soccer battle enters new phase

BERLIN — Germany’s antitrust office is expected to weigh in soon on Leo Kirch’s ambitious but controversial plans to produce and sell pre-packaged Bundesliga soccer shows starting in 2009, and the octogenarian is looking to placate the watchdog as well as pay TV platform Premiere with a compromise.

Rupert Murdoch took a 15% stake in Premiere in January, making News Corp. its biggest single shareholder. Soon after, the feevee went on the offensive by filing a complaint with the federal cartel office charging that Kirch’s plan to offer bundled Bundesliga programming was not only anti-competitive but also violated its journalistic integrity.

Kirch’s strategy is a core element of the savvy mogul’s six-year, Euros 3 billion ($4.4 billion) marketing deal with the German Football League (DFL). The soccer show is to be produced by a joint company set up this week by Kirch’s Sirius SportMedia and the DFL.

Premiere holds Bundesliga rights through 2008 and relies heavily on soccer to attract subscribers.

According to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Kirch is looking to appease cartel authorities and Premiere with a compromise of sorts in the form of an independent advisory board to oversee production of the Bundesliga coverage and ensure that there are no violations of journalistic standards.

High-profile names that have been mentioned as possible board members include Fritz Pleitgen and Jobst Plog, both former toppers of pubcaster ARD, along with other media bigwigs and sports personalities.

Whether the media watchdog will go for it remains to be seen. The argument of journalistic integrity is a powerful one and Kirch’s conciliatory effort may reflect growing concern that the plan could meet with serious opposition at the cartel office.

For the DFL, the Kirch plan would make it possible to solicit offers from smaller pay TV platforms, cablers, free TV channels and cellular phone networks, guaranteeing higher revenue than in the past.

Initial bidding for the upcoming Bundesliga season is set to begin in April, but whether any deals are actually closed depends on the cartel office’s final approval.

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