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Broadcasters in Bidding War Over Soccer Coverage

Might German soccer get less fan-friendly? Plans to change the broadcast time of soccer's weekly highlight show have raised the hackles of fans and could mark a sea change in German television.

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Angling for more exclusivity, but at the fans' expense?

One of the earliest memories for many a German soccer fan is of gathering around the television on a Saturday evening to watch the highlights of that day's Bundesliga matches.

Should pay TV channel Premiere get its way, that will change.

The Munich-based company is the frontrunner in a current bidding war for the rights to broadcast Bundesliga matches. Though few doubt their chances at winning the rights, Premiere's demands for unparalleled exclusivity has turned the German soccer world upside down.

In exchange for the 260 million euros ($304 million) experts say Premiere is likely to pay the German Soccer League (DFL) for the rights to broadcast matches, the pay TV channel wants to push public television's Saturday evening show, Sportschau, into the nether regions of Saturday night programming.

Germans are now able to watch Sportschau on free public television only an hour after Premiere finishes broadcasting matches. But Premiere CEO Georg Kofler wants the show pushed from 6:10 p.m. to at least 10 p.m., a move experts say will mean the loss of many of the show's 6 million viewers.

Georg Kofler

Premiere CEO Georg Kofler

"It just can't be that games are shown on free TV directly after pay TV shows them," Kofler, whose company has paid 180 million euros annually for Bundesliga rights for the past two seasons, said in a statement.

Goi n g the way of Fra n ce a n d E n gla n d ?

The prospect has horrified soccer purists and sparked concerns that Germany, the last bastion of inexpensive television in Europe, will soon go the way of England, France and Italy.

In contrast to the English and French, Germans have for decades enjoyed a large number and variety of channels and TV programming -- including soccer highlights -- for the small monthly fee they pay to the country's public broadcasters. Their right to "basic" TV programming has been reaffirmed by the country's highest court. Most viewers would consider the national sport "basic," if not life-essential.

"Soccer at six is the right time," said Andreas Sürken, the owner of the Berlin soccer bar Magnet Mitte. "It's a public commodity."

Bundesliga Übertragungsrechte für ARD

Public broadcaster ARD has broadcast the Sportschau for the past two seasons

Over the past two years, public broadcaster ARD paid an estimated annual 60 million euros to rebroadcast highlights of the matches. Though ARD understands the DFL's desire for more money, they warn against upsetting fans for short-term gain.

"You can't just take millions of viewers hostage because you want more money," Fritz Pleitgen, the director general of WDR, one of the ARD's regional broadcasters, said in a statement.

The begi n n i n g of a cha n ge i n Germa n TV

Some see in the fight the beginning of a sea change in German television programming. Long the exception among European countries with its program variety for little cost, the coming digitalization of the country's airwaves is paving the way for new money fields.

Companies like Kabel Digital Deutschland are offering an ever-expanding selection of channel packages beginning at 10 euros a month. Premiere's own successful rebound from the collapse of the Leo Kirch media empire in 2002 has prompted private broadcasters like RTL to launch their own pay TV channel.

Fußballfans vor einem Großbildschirm auf dem Leipziger Hauptbahnhof Leipzig Olympia Bewerbung

Germans have been used to a lot of programming, including soccer, for a small fee

Words of cautio n

The TV landscape "is changing gradually," said Stefan Weiss, an analyst for WestLB. Weiss co-authored a report on Premiere's bidding war that predicted the DAX-listed company could get as many as 300,000 new clients if they get more Bundesliga exclusivity.

But experts are cautioning the DFL against showing too much willingness to compromise.

Werder Bremen Fans

How will the fans react?

"In the end, they also need to think of their product," said Thomas Schierl, a professor at the German Sport University in Cologne. Mentioning fan resistance to pushing back "Sportschau" in the past, he added "it isn't worth it to make money in the short term if you hurt your product in the long term."

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