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Glimmer of hope in wrangle over England television deal

ENGLAND will try to negotiate their way out of a #87.5m broadcasting deal with BSkyB, a meeting in London tonight at which the future of the Five Nations' Championship is to be decided will be told.

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The five-year agreement with the satellite station has seen England ejected from the Five Nations tournament for breaking the understanding that - France notwithstanding - the home nations were not permitted to sell Five Nations rights on their own accord. Apparently, however, the deal with BSkyB is not set in stone to the extent that, with goodwill on both sides, it cannot be undone. In any event, the agreement to televise all Twickenham internationals for the next five years was on the basis that the Five Nations partners would be regular visitors. As a result of England being thrown out of the tournament three weeks ago, the RFU is no longer in a position to deliver the goods as ``purchased'' by BSkyB. It would probably be in everybody's interest - including those of the broadcaster - if the fateful agreement were laid aside and negotiations began again from scratch. If, indeed, it is England's intention to seek to extricate themselves from the BSkyB deal - and last night that certainly seemed to be the case - then it could well be that, in a fresh round of bidding, the Rupert Murdoch empire's financial clout would still see off the efforts of terrestrial rivals such as ITV and BBC. In that event, because of disquiet among existing sponsors who fear that the relatively small audience which BSkyB can deliver would mean that they were being short-changed in terms of media exposure, it would be better if a terrestrial/satellite split - where the balance is more in favour of live terrestrial coverage - could be put in place. All rugby administrations are now looking toward TV rights as the major source of new monies in the professional game. The #4m-a-year proposal to place 100 players under contract, which the Scottish Rugby Union announced last week, will be financed by the proceeds from the European Cup tournament bankrolled by Heineken and ITV. That being the case, there is absolutely no likelihood of the Five Nations TV rights being sold for the kind of money the BBC have paid hitherto. However, the inescapable fact is that TV broadcasters are not philanthropists. Whichever broadcaster - or more likely broadcasters, with BSkyB entering into a joint terrestrial deal with ITV or BBC - is successful once the Five Nations bidding begins afresh, there will be changes in the format of the world's most enduring international tournament. For a start, games played on Saturdays and Sundays and even on a home and away basis, with some matches staged under floodlights, will almost certainly represent the new-look Five Nations once the bidding is over and the TV dust has settled. Tonight's meeting, which takes place at the Heathrow Hilton Hotel, will involve the presidents and Five Nations representatives from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and France, and will be chaired by former Ireland international full back Tom Kiernan. Yesterday it had not been finally decided whether it was necessary for RFU representatives to attend. The RFU's latest proposals to its erstwhile partners were sent in a confidential fax message to Five Nations presidents last week. The current Five Nations TV deal with the BBC, worth around #25m, is due to expire next spring. Despite England's unilateral deal with BSkyB, the Five Nations broadcasting rights committee has sent out tender documents to all interested broadcasters. And if the BSkyB deal can be undone, negotiation will start afresh with all the partners involved. However, it emerged last night that even if England return to the Five Nations fold there is still some tough talking to be done. Before the RFU struck out on its own, Twickenham's negotiators had let it be known that they expected a larger share of any new broadcasting deal. The RFU claimed that a larger slice of the broadcasting cake was a necessity because they had ``more mouths to feed.'' The Herald understands this is still the RFU's position and that the demand for extra cash would be in excess of the #8m, or thereabouts - which England currently receives on top of the basic BBC deal - because of BSkyB's involvement with English club rugby. A Five Nations insider observed last night: ``There is still a great deal of hard talking to be done, but if England have, indeed, recognised the principle that the Five Nations broadcasting rights were not theirs to sell, then we are heading in the right direction.''

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