Rupe’s BSkyB puts Ball into play

Exec brings experience in sports rights to UK market

LONDON — Rupert Murdoch is installing Tony Ball, chief exec of Fox/Liberty Networks, as the new head of BSkyB, a move that will bring Ball’s considerable experience in sports rights to bear on the U.K.’s TV market.

Ball, 43, takes office June 1. The satcaster’s departing chief exec, Mark Booth, is returning to the U.S. to head up News Corp.’s Internet businesses.

Ball will be the first Brit to run BSkyB. He worked for the satcaster as head of production for Sky Sports, then as broadcasting G.M. for three years before joining Fox/Liberty in 1997. He is credited with having built BSkyB into a powerful player in sports broadcasting.

The appointment comes at a time when BSkyB’s dominance in sports is threatened by a regulatory investigation over anti-competitive concerns into the satcaster’s rights deal for English Premier League soccer.

BSkyB also faces growing competition to its SkyDigital service from terrestrial rival ONdigital as well as the U.K.’s cablers, soon to launch their digital platforms.

Meanwhile, BSkyB has made fresh overtures to the ITV network to allow it to carry the ITV and ITV2 channels on SkyDigital, carriage that so far has been denied by ITV, the only British terrestrial to do so.

In a letter to ITV, the satcaster promised that if it did not have 2.5 million digital subscribers by 2001, it would pay compensation to the network for lost earnings from anticipated tax savings. ITV does not have to pay taxes on ad revenues it receives from digital TV.

ITV responded that the issue was strategic rather than financial. Carlton and Granada, two of the “big three” ITV companies, are co-owners of ONdigital. Keeping ITV, the U.K.’s biggest commercial web, off SkyDigital helps make ONdigital more attractive.