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Webs battle producers for new-media rights

Ofcom to step into spat if resolution deadline not met

LONDON — The clock is ticking in the festering dispute between U.K. broadcasters and independent producers over how new-media rights are divvied up.

Regulator the Office of Communications (Ofcom) has given the groups until March 21 to resolve their differences or it will step into the spat.

The issue of who owns what when it comes to the exploitation of TV shows on broadband, mobile and video-on-demand has caused a deep rift in the industry.

Terrestrial webs ITV, Channel 4 and Five are at loggerheads with U.K. producers’ trade body Pact over rights to the shows its members make.

At the heart of the dispute is the length time terrestrial broadcasters must wait following original transmission to be are able to offer audiences new-media versions of a show.

TV stations fear that unless these rights are sold as part of the original deal, there is nothing to stop a rival — be it paybox BSkyB or even Google — from buying new media rights and exploiting them as downloads or VOD immediately following the first TV broadcast.

“It’s absolutely of the highest strategic importance for Channel 4 that we get a good result on this, says a station insider. “If we don’t, there may not be a Channel 4 in 10 or 15 years.”

This may sound like rhetoric, but as a broadcaster that buys in all its U.K. shows from indies and has an ambitious new media strategy, commercial pubcaster Channel 4 has the most to lose if it cannot agree good terms.

But indies are resisting new-media rights being bundled into a primary window, and want greater flexibility to trade rights across different platforms.

They argue that unless they get want they want, the British TV production business could be hit hard just as bigger players, like the recently floated RDF Media and Shed, are beginning to emerge and are attracting investment.

“As VOD begins to take off, there will be a huge demand for content,” says a Pact source. “And if the platforms can’t buy it from the U.K., they’ll go outside, primarily to the U.S. This dispute isn’t good for Britain PLC.”

Originally, C4 topper Andy Duncan called for a 30-day window for broadband downloads following the original broadcast. Speaking last month at a Royal Television Society conference, he appeared to be willing to compromise, but insisted the window must be “substantially more than seven days.”

Pact, which had negotiated a seven-day window with the BBC for its interactive media player trials, rejects the idea of a 30-day window and has accused C4 of “looking to Hoover up everything.”

On Jan. 11, Ofcom, whose responsibilities include regulating the British program supply market, aimed to end the dispute by publishing proposals that suggested creating a primary rights window and a holdback period but, crucially, failed to specify a time frame.

“This provides broadcasters with the scope to offer free on-demand services to audiences for a short window within the terms of their primary license, while still allowing producers a reasonable chance of exploiting the new media commercial value of their programs outside the window,” Ofcom adviser Robin Foster claims.

New media accounts for only 5% of total independent production turnover in the U.K., according to Ofcom, but as broadband and mobile services expand, this is expected to grow exponentially.

If the ball is lobbed back into Ofcom’s court, it’s anyone’s guess who will come out on top.

But as tension mounts, this is a dispute whose outcome will resonate beyond the immediate protagonists as the broadcasters’ rivals look increasingly to new media as a way of creating fresh revenue streams.