Tour de France coverage has hill to climb

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MUNICH -- Commercial broadcaster Sat.1's Tour de France coverage got off to a slow start here Thursday.

Coverage of the race, which the Berlin-based channel took over when pubcasters ARD and ZDF dropped the cycling event Wednesday in the wake of a new doping scandal, ended with a disappointing 4.9% market share. ARD and ZDF had been averaging 13.5% during the first nine days of the Tour.

Niche channel Eurosport, which also had been broadcasting Tour de France coverage, jumped from under 2% to 8.9% audience share Thursday.

Though industry observers noted that Sat.1 had virtually no time at all to publicize its takeover, some commented that the general public approved of ARD/ZDF's stand against doping and wondered if Sat.1 head Matthias Alberti might have made a mistake in picking up the Tour so quickly. "He didn't mention a syllable about doping," media industry Web site blickpunkt:film wrote.

Sat.1 did not return calls asking for comment.

In the spring, when a series of doping confessions rocked the sport, debate raged for weeks over whether ARD and ZDF should cover the Tour (HR 5/31). The pubcasters insisted that the only way to keep pressure on the teams to make sure their riders were clean was to make their TV coverage conditional. ARD and ZDF's contracts reserved the right to cut off coverage at any time.

Germany is the source of one-third of all television income for the Tour de France, so the pressure the pubcasters brought to bear was not inconsiderable. When the positive results of a June 8 testosterone test on T-Mobile rider Patrick Sinkewitz, a German cyclist for the top German team, were released Wednesday, ARD and ZDF immediately suspended their coverage.

Sinkewitz, who insists he is innocent, has five days after his official notification to ask for his B sample to be tested. He has been temporarily suspended from his team and faces a ban from the sport if the B sample also tests positive. He withdrew from the Tour on Sunday after a collision with a fan.
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