BT Sport has a mountain to climb in its bid to beat BSkyB

David Hellier
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A COUPLE of friends of mine have spent most of their summer putting together what is certain to be an entertaining and enlightening show for Sky Arts called Portrait Artist of the Year.

Presented by the comedian Frank Skinner, the series involves members of the public painting portraits of celebrities, including the actress Juliet Stevenson.

When my family visited the filming in Trafalgar Square a few weeks ago, we were treated to a free caricature and a memorable day out.

Portrait Artist of the Year is a prime example of the original programming that Sky produces each year. Shows such as this, and Melvyn Bragg’s culture show, have helped to catapult the broadcaster into the mainstream of the UK television scene. Sky has also been a pioneer in HD, 3D, betting, and, in its earlier days, home shopping.

But when it comes to driving dish sales and paid subscriptions there is very little to beat live sport, especially now that the likes of Netflix and LoveFilm have made the movies service less of a draw.

So it is hardly surprising that BT Sport’s bold but risky entrance into the world of live football coverage has produced a savage response from Sky. Even the web page for Portrait Artist of the Year yesterday carried an advert for Premier League football.

As Sky’s founder Rupert Murdoch said once: “Football is the battering ram” to attract subscriptions.

BT Sport, a subsidiary of BT, has paid out nearly £1bn for its sports rights portfolio – three times as much as its forerunners, ESPN and Setanta – in its hope to attract fans over to its platform offering of television, broadband and telephone, or at least to prevent them defecting to Sky. It is a massive gamble.

For starters, no football fan in their right mind will give up their Sky package, including broadband, to move to a far inferior BT Sport offering without retaining their Sky Sport channels.

BT Sport has secured the rights to 38 live Premier League matches, compared to 118 with Sky Sports, but most at suboptimal times at Saturday lunch-time. There will be some for whom the cheaper entry price (it is not really free in the broad sense, but only free to broadband subscribers), is attractive but those viewers are likely to be in the minority.

Thanks to a deal just ahead of the start of the football season announced last week, Virgin Media’s customers on the higher end packages will now be getting BT Sport’s channels free. How much BT Sport makes out of this deal (not much, I would suggest) remains a mystery.

BT has said that around 1m of its own broadband customers have subscribed to BT Sport (for free).

But BT Sport’s biggest hope of making a real dent on Sky’s dominance is to hang on for the duration of its current Premier League rights deal so it stands a chance of winning the bulk of the packages next time around.

That would be massively costly and unlikely – Sky will never give up its grip on elite football without a massive fight.

Fierce competition ought to be good all round and certainly the Premier League and its 20 top tier teams are making a killing, which will help them all when it comes to introducing the Financial Fair Play rules that are being brought in to the game over the next few months.

The picture for fans is less rosy, though. Virgin Media subscribers are doing fine, thanks to last week’s deal. But Sky customers now have to go through BT Sport to add the new channels (at a cost of £15 a month).

What most fans would like is a deal that enables them to see all their favourite club’s fixtures live.

It’s a shame for them that the practice of the leagues negotiating their rights centrally, rather than through the individual teams, means that day is a long way off.
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