NTV-Plus, pubcaster to share soccer

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MOSCOW -- Russian pay TV satcaster NTV-Plus on Monday faced down presidential criticism of its exclusive $100 million deal to screen the nation's top-league soccer matches when it announced it will share rights with pubcaster RTR Sport.

The satcaster said that weekend talks with state-owned channel Sport's parent company VGTRK (The All-Russian State Television and Radio Co.) had addressed fears that ordinary soccer fans would miss out on televised premier league matches unless they could afford expensive NTV-Plus subscriptions.

"On Sunday, we agreed that RTR Sport should screen matches this year exactly like it has in the past," NTV-Plus spokeswoman Anastasia Kazakova said in an interview.

"Key matches will also be shown on the (public) First Channel," she said, adding that details of exactly how the screening rights will be shared will be announced later. "We've taken note of what President Putin said and, as first deputy prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said, are recognizing that sport in Russia should be for all."

News of the new deal -- which NTV-Plus said is a sub-licensing agreement -- came less than a week after the announcement that the satellite broadcaster had paid $100 million for exclusive rights to air premier-league matches for the next four years.

The news caused uproar among soccer fans -- many of whom cannot afford NTV-Plus connection and subscription fees running to several hundred dollars a year -- and prompted President Vladimir Putin to publically criticize the deal.

In televised comments last week, Putin told Medevev -- who is also on the board of Gazprom, which owns NTV-Plus parent company Gazprom-Media -- to "sort out the mess."

NTV-Plus and the other two parties to the deal -- the Russian Football Union and the Russian Premier League -- scrambled to defuse the row as other big players with vested interests in keeping the fans happy, such as major soccer sponsor insurance company Rosgosstrakh, weighed in with warnings that it might pull its advertising.

The new, not-so-exclusive broadcasting plan left some industry watchers in Moscow scratching their heads Monday.

Alexander Malis, general director of cable channel Corbina Telecom, said NTV-Plus may manage to attract sufficient new subscribers to cover its costs, but it will demand a "virtuoso performance from the sales department."

Television ratings figures for last year's champion soccer matches suggest NTV-Plus may face an uphill struggle. Average ratings for matches aired on the First Channel were 3.5% and on Sport just 1%, according to TNS Gallup Media figures published Monday by newspaper Kommersant.


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