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Tour still on for Germany

Race has scored sterling daytime ratings

BERLIN — German pubcasters ARD and ZDF, which have scored huge ratings with their blanket coverage of the Tour de France in recent years, said they planned to stick with the world’s premier cycling race in July despite the shock relevations from five top German riders they used banned performance-enhancing blood-doping in the past.

The webs, which share coverage of the three-week race, have scored sterling daytime ratings of more than 3 million viewers with the race throughout the past nine years, which has helped turned cycling into a major German TV sport. But they suffered a steep drop in ratings last year when German star Jan Ullrich, who won in 1997, was suspended by his team for blood-doping suspicions on the eve of the race. The ratings are expected to erode further this year with the spreading scandal. The pubcasters planned to charge up to e17,400 for 30-second ads but likely will be forced to offer rebates, like last year when ratings dropped by over 40% from their 2005 peak.

While it was long feared that the use of EPO and other banned substances plagued the demanding sport of cycling, no major active or retired riders had ever admitted they cheated until the five German riders and two team doctors came clean one after another in Germany this week. More big names and possibly former winners from other countries are expected to follow suit.

“To bail out of the Tour de France now would be the biggest mistake we could possibly make,” said ZDF editor-in-chief Nikolaus Brender, who said he believed the confessions would help purify the sport. “These are for the most part former riders who have outed themselves. If more new doping cases surface in the summer, we may have to review our decision. But this is purgatory that we have to go through now.”

Some German political leaders quickly called for the pubcasters to scrap their coverage of cycling, which has grown enormously popular since the webs started covering the race a decade ago. ARD programming topper Guenter Strueve and other ARD execs said they that would only punish those trying to clean up the sport now.

ARD topper Fritz Raff said both pubcasters were still going ahead with plans to continue their extensive coverage of the entire Tour de France this year but said that could change if further cases of doping emerge.

“There is nevertheless the possibility of exiting if new developments in the coming days and weeks force us to,” Raff said. He added it was at the moment still unclear whether ARD and ZDF would extend their contract to broadcast the race beyond 2008 when the current deal expires.

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