Sky Italia scores World Cup ’06 rights

Satcaster beats RAI with $51 mil bid

MILAN — Rupert Murdoch’s satcaster Sky Italia has shaken soccer-mad Italy by acquiring exclusive rights to the 2006 soccer World Cup for e40 million ($51 million), beating terrestrial pubcaster RAI.

Move means that next year, for the first time, Italian viewers will have to pay to watch the 64 Cup matches, to be played in Germany between June 9 and July 9.

The state-owned network, which should be partially privatized in the next few months, has shown the World Cup matches free-to-air since the launch of television here in the 1950s.

RAI will have the rights to Italy’s matches in the tourney as well as the finals and semi-finals, but for no more than 25 matches in all.

“There is an absurd strategy launched by (Silvio Berlusconi’s) government, the (right-center) majority in the parliament and RAI’s board to destroy our state TV group by spring 2006. This is an extremely serious event,” Paolo Serventi Longhi, prexy of the Italian National Press Federation, said Friday.

Minister for Communications Mario Landolfi has written to RAI prexy Flavio Cattaneo asking him to “clarify” why the pubcaster didn’t use its option to acquire the 2006 rights.

According to media circles, the deal is Sky’s revenge against Prime Minister Berlusconi’s broadcaster Mediaset and Telecom Italia’s La7, which have launched digital terrestrial TV services offering Serie A soccer matches. Sky Italia has the rights to the same matches in satellite pay-per-view and suffered when the DTT services bowed.

“I don’t see a national scandal. Sky has acquired the leftovers of the World Cup because the matches played by Italy will be broadcast by RAI,” Mediaset prexy Fedele Confalonieri said Friday.

Sky Italia, which has some 3 million subscribers, has launched an aggressive campaign to attract new clients, offering a free decoder and a free month to new subscribers.

Murdoch’s Italo venture posted a narrowed operating loss of e21 million ($26.5 million) in the first quarter compared with a loss of $30 million a year earlier. Italy’s only satcaster is expected to post its first profit in the fiscal fourth quarter 2005.