BRUSSELS — European public broadcasters have won a reprieve from the European Commission that will allow the companies to continue bidding jointly for international sports rights.
The EC is opposed in principle to collective bidding for rights, but is also keen to maintain the freedom of the European consumer to watch significant sporting events for free.
A number of private TV broadcasters have launched challenges against the European Broadcasting Union, which puts in joint bids for sports rights on behalf of its members through its Eurovision system.
In 1996, the European Court of First Instance annulled the EC’s earlier decision to allow the EBU to acquire sports rights by pooling resources. The court’s action followed a complaint by M6 of France, SIC of Portugal and Silvio Berlusconi, owner of the Italian and Spanish Mediaset channels.
However, following the review of the EBU membership status of Canal Plus, the largest pay TV company in Europe, the EC said it intended to approve the bidding system.
Canal Plus has left the Eurovision network while retaining membership of the EBU itself. An EC official told Daily Variety that the change of Canal Plus’ membership status had effectively appeased its concerns over the competition problems posed by the EBU’s bidding system. The EBU has also agreed that if a member broadcasts an event on a pay TV channel, nonmembers may also broadcast the event on equitable terms.
The European Court of Justice is still investigating the legality of the EBU’s position. However, since 1996, most of the important sports events broadcast by the EBU have been lost to large private media firms such as Kirch, Mediaset, Bertelsmann and BSkyB or to international brokers including ISL, IMG and Team.
EBU has lost the rights to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups to Kirch, although it has managed to hold on to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the 2000 European soccer championships and the Roland Garros French Open Tennis championships. The hemorrhaging of soccer rights in particular is understood to have softened the EC’s position towards the EBU.
Happy at last
An EBU spokesman told Daily Variety that its officials were very satisfied the EC had finally come down in their favor.
A spokeswoman for the BBC also welcomed the decision and stressed the impact it would have on the smaller and poorer members of the EBU. The EBU pledged to continue to try to win back soccer rights for the European public.
The Commission could not put a timeframe on the decision process, but final approval of the EBU’s position is expected by early 2000.
Although the complicated case is now drawing to an apparently victorious close for the EBU, the saga has once again put the increasingly controversial position of public broadcasting in the single European market firmly under the spotlight.