British Telecom TV Chief Aims for Fair Fight With BSkyB

Marc Watson describes Rupert Murdoch's pay TV satellite operator as a "formidable competitor" in the British marketplace.

LONDON – Marc Watson, head of TV at British Telecom, insists his company is in live sports broadcasting for the long term, wants a fair fight with rival Sky Sports (owned and operated by Rupert Murdoch's pay TV satellite operator BSkyB) and says BT will be making money "the day the service launches" on Aug. 1.

Watson's steely determination emerged at a British Broadcasting Press Guild lunch Thursday in the private dining room atop the landmark BT Tower in central London.

It came on the same day arch rival BSkyB unveiled plans to offer its sports services free -- including a Barclays Premier League soccer match on the league's opening day, Aug. 17.

"We like free," said Watson, playing on the fact BT's sports channels will be free to its 5 million-plus BT broadband subscribers and include 38 live and exclusive football matches from the league long regarded as one of Murdoch's key Sky subscriber drivers.

"We'd like them to extend that to other parts of their product offering," Watson, a former legal eagle, said mischievously.

He argued that Sky's move to replace the regular programming on Sky 2 – on Sky and other pay TV services and Pick TV on Freeview and YouView – allowing viewers to enjoy a yet-to-be-announced live fixture from the Premier League at zero cost was "positive" for BT.

BT has invested around $1.6 billion in rights and content for its bouquet of sports channels and plans to show soccer matches scheduled by the league at Saturday lunchtimes.

Watson also hit back at Sky's refusal to license Sky Sports 1 and 2 channels for BT's latest Internet-connected model of set-top box, describing the move as "unjust," and said BT was waiting to see whether [U.K. media regulator] Ofcom will “fix” the issue in time for the approaching soccer season.

“There are lots and lots of rules regulating what we do at BT. If someone – a big company or a small company – approaches us and asks for access to our network, we don’t tell them to bog off and build their own – we give them access on reasonable terms," Watson said. "All we’re asking for is the same courtesy in TV and sport where Sky are presently dominant. They own 100 percent of the premium sports market. By any definition we think that is dominant. Parity is all we’re looking for."

He described Murdoch's empire as a "formidable competitor" but that in his dealings to date, one that had always played it "tough and straight."

BT Sport will be the first to offer weekly live matches from the Barclays Premier League free to air in the U.K in more than 20 years. Programming across the three channels ­– BT Sport 1, BT Sport 2 and ESPN – includes 38 live and exclusive football matches from the Premier League.

Watson also pledged to continue with carriage deals and content arrangements with all the major Hollywood studios. At the end of last year, the U.K. digital platform inked a deal with Universal Networks International to add Universal Channel, Syfy and E! Entertainment to its channel offerings. It also has content deals in place with Warner Bros., Discovery Networks U.K. and Miramax, among others.

Watson said he aims to continue to strike content deals and will aim to renew the current Hollywood deals. He also said he would welcome the addition of Netflix to BT's digital service offering.

BT Sport will also include all live rugby matches from the Aviva Premiership and offer live soccer from several other top leagues around the world, including those in Germany, France, Italy and Brazil.

There will also be FA Cup ties, the UEFA Europa League, Scottish Premier League plus WTA women's tennis and action from the UFC.

BT aims to use the lure of sports programming to boost broadband take-up and subscriptions to its BT Vision TV service. Only one in five U.K. homes currently takes a sports channel, a fact Watson said almost certainly presented a growth opportunity for BT. By offering BT Sport, Watson said the hope is to bring growth to its consumer business.

He played down any thoughts that the move into sports was a flashy, expensive marketing move to create headlines and grab customers in the short term.

"We intend to be in this business for a long time," Watson said.