BBC hits signal snafu

Pubcaster, studios in dispute over unencrypted beams

LONDON — The BBC may have seriously jeopardized its relationship with the Hollywood studios, which could result in the U.K. pubcaster not being allowed to broadcast certain U.S. movies and series such as “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” and “24.”

Warner Bros., Universal and 20th Century Fox have reportedly called in their lawyers to iron out a dispute over the BBC’s decision to broadcast channels unencrypted in a bid to save £85 million ($137 million). The studios claim that this contravenes their broadcast contracts because the BBC does not own the relevant rights. Contracts may also specify that a program be transmitted encrypted.

One studio exec described the BBC’s move as an “act of piracy” and said there had been little consultation with the studios before the decision was taken to split from satcaster BSkyB’s encryption service. The Motion Picture Assn. is also lobbying the BBC.

“We are in discussions with the studios that we deal with who are concerned about the implications of this,” said a BBC spokeswoman. “It’s true some negotiations are on hold. This is an issue that just has to be got over. Closing deals after the L.A. Screenings is foremost in our minds.”

The BBC argues that the new digital satellite Astra 2D has a more focused footprint and therefore there is less spillover in Europe so there is no need to scramble the signal. Astra 2D’s footprint reaches 7.19 million homes in Europe (6.2 million in the U.K.), compared with 15.44 million on Astra 2A.

The studios are assessing the impact before threatening to pull movies and series. The Beeb will be hoping to resolve the situation quickly, which could mean going back to a conditional access deal with BSkyB, in order to secure the third series of “24,” which has proved hugely popular for BBC2. It also wants to ensure that it can broadcast the first “Harry Potter” movie, which is skedded for this Christmas.