New York-headquartered News Corporation has threatened to sue the BBC for alleged breach of licence. The eyeballing centres around the controversial decision in March by the publicly-owned British broadcaster to shift its non-terrestrial digital signal from BSkyB's Astra 2A satellite to the rival Astra 2D [WAMN: 14-Mar-03].

The move deprived NewsCorp-owned Sky of a cool £87 million ($145.55m; €124.18m) in annual revenues and saved the BBC a considerable sum into the bargain. The purpose of the shift which took effect on June 1 was to avoid paying for Sky’s costly encryption service.

Signals from Sky's satellite can be received across Europe - which makes encryption essential to ensure broadcasts are restricted to the intended nations. Whereas the BBC's Astra 2D can be picked up only in the UK and Ireland (theoretically at least) thereby allowing the BBC to transmit unscrambled.

BSkyB, however, does not accept that these transmissions are as tightly focused as the BBC claims, averring that NewsCorp-owned programmes transmitted by the BBC satellite such as The Simpsons might be viewed by Brit expatriates in Spain, France and other parts of Europe.

This situation has incensed no less a personage than NewsCorp president/coo Peter Chernin, who on Monday condemned the BBC's unscrambled broadcasts as "wrong" and "unacceptable".

“We could stop selling to the BBC, or ask for an injunction — or we could sue them,” blustered Chernin, who conceded that discussions over the issue are still at an early stage.

But the BBC insists its coverage "footprint" is tightly focused on the British Isles. "The move does not prejudice the interests of rights holders who benefit from the satellite’s tighter footprint,” said the broadcaster in silkiest public service mode.

Some observers believe the real issue is less that of broadcast "footprint" and more an attempt to recoup some of the revenues lost by Sky following the satellite switch.

Data sourced from: Times Online (UK); additional content by WARC staff