Low audience figures triggers new debate June 8, 2006

Debate over Sky contract resurfaces

Cricinfo staff

Richard Caborn, the sports minister, is under pressure to call for a meeting with BSkyB officials to discuss the small audience being attracted to Sky Sports' coverage of international cricket.

This comes after it was revealed that viewing figures for the Tests against Sri Lanka were under a third for those on Channel 4 this time a year ago. The average audience for the Sri Lanka Tests was 200,000 while the comparative figures for the Bangladesh series in 2005 were around 700,000. Critics of the BSkyB deal also point out that Bangladesh were also a less appealing opposition.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport also indicated that the BBC had expressed a desire to hold "serious discussions" with BSkyB to try to negotiate the return of limited coverage to terrestrial TV. The Keep Cricket Free campaign said that the audience figures were proof that the deal with BSkyB had been "misguided".

John Grogan, the MP for Selby, a vociferous advocate of cricket being available for free, said that it was "absolutely unprecedented" for a minister to call in broadcasters to discuss a commercial contract such as this. "This reflects the fact that the viewing figures on Sky have been truly appalling," he told the Yorkshire Post. "There is still hope that if James Murdoch, head of BSkyB, agrees to negotiate, some of the England-Pakistan series could be on free-to-air television."

A media insider said that the BBC's move was slightly surprising given that it had not been interested in putting forward any bid when the contract was up for review in 2004. He also questioned whether the BBC would be able to devote the hours needed for the coverage of matches on its main channels, or even if it would be prepared to pay a commercial rate for such coverage.

Caborn confirmed in parliament yesterday that he had written to all broadcasters asking them to major broadcasters last month offering to hold a summit, providing they "are willing to negotiate with BSkyB".