Hong Kong broadcasters feud over World Cup

Soccer competition has local channels in dispute

HONG KONG -- Three broadcasters in Hong Kong are feuding over World Cup TV rights in a dispute that could leave football fans without free coverage of the month-long contest.

A former British territory that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong inherited its love of football from its colonial rulers. Locals have adopted European clubs as their favorites, frequently staying up late to watch the English Premier League and La Liga despite the time difference. It's also common to see Hong Kongers test their own skills on smaller-than-regulation cement pitches sandwiched between towering skyscrapers.

So every four years, come World Cup time, this hectic city of 7 million people is engaged in an extended football frenzy.

But this year, the anticipation has been tempered by a dispute over TV rights.

The impasse stems from failed negotiations between Hong Kong's authorized broadcaster, the pay-TV station Cable TV, and the territory's two leading free-to-air broadcasters, TVB and ATV.

Cable TV was also Hong Kong's World Cup rights holder in 2002 and 2006. In those years, the station licensed footage of four key matches _ the opening match, the semifinals and the final _ to TVB and ATV.

This year it will do the same _ but it will also require the two stations to carry its commentary and advertising. In the past, the two free-to-air stations could hire their own commentators and sell their own advertising.

TVB and ATV rejected the offer, saying it violated their editorial independence and limited public choice.

"We want the freedom to create, the freedom to produce and the freedom to commentate," ATV spokesman Gilbert Au said.

"This is an unequal treaty," TVB deputy controller for external affairs Tsang Shing-ming said.

Cable TV says it changed the terms of its sub-licensing agreements because it feels but was underpaid by TVB and ATV in the past, spokeswoman Ivy Ng said. She also accused TVB of telling advertisers that it held World Cup rights during previous World Cups before they had signed sub-licensing deals with Cable TV.

Tsang denied this, saying advertisers simply asked TVB ahead of time if they will carry World Cup matches.

Cable TV, which charges 399 Hong Kong dollars a month ($50) for a basic package, counts a subscriber base of more than 1 million households, according to Ng. TVB has a prime time viewership of up to 2 million people and ATV 380,000 people, the stations say.

Given Cable TV's wide reach _ it is also commonly carried in bars and restaurants _ even if the three broadcasters fail to negotiate a solution, Hong Kong won't see a blackout of World Cup coverage. But public access is a highly symbolic and political issue, especially when it comes to the biggest football event in the world in such a football-obsessed city. So the government has also chimed in.

Hong Kong's Broadcasting Authority said in a statement on Thursday that while the discussions are a "commercial matter," regulators "hope that the commercial broadcasters concerned will have the interests of viewers in mind in arriving at a decision."

Ng, however, notes that Cable TV's contract with FIFA does not require it to sub-license matches to free-to-air broadcasters. FIFA said in a statement it was aware of the negotiations between the Hong Kong broadcasters but declined further comment.
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