BBC, network in cable deal Discovery agrees to help create several channels

September 28, 1996|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,SUN STAFF

Discovery Communications Inc. will invest $500 million or more in a long-term partnership with the British Broadcasting Corp. to develop programming and new cable TV channels in the U.S. and abroad, the Bethesda company said yesterday.

The deal is expected to lead to a BBC cable channel in the United States that would be owned by the British government-controlled broadcaster, yet distributed through Discovery's relationships with local cable systems.

It also will give Discovery the right of first refusal to show nearly all of the BBC's nonfiction programming in the U.S., and the right to work with the BBC to develop programs for Discovery's present and future cable channels, including the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, and the Animal Planet Channel.

"Together, we are the largest producer of nonfiction programming in the world," Discovery chief executive John Hendricks said.

In large part, the deal represents a play by Discovery and Tele-Communications Inc., the Denver cable company that owns 49.5 percent of Discovery, to prepare for the days of

500-channel cable systems, Hendricks said.

Digital cable reception boxes that will sit on top of a consumer's TV will be able to squeeze as many as 10 channels into a frequency band that now can handle only one. Discovery spokesman Jim Boyle said four planned Discovery networks will be marketed primarily to systems where the so-called "digital compression" technology is available, because conventional cable systems are mostly full.

The possible losers in the deal include the Public Broadcasting System and cable's A&E Network, each of which has extensive relationships with the BBC. But the BBC's deal with Discovery is not exclusive, and the BBC will remain free to extend agreements to co-produce programming with other broadcasters and programmers.

Spokesmen for both networks were unruffled yesterday.

"The BBC does very little with us in terms of nonfiction," A&E spokesman Gary Morgenstein said. He said his network's signature nonfiction programming, the "Biography" series, gets less than 5 percent of its content in a typical year from the BBC.

PBS spokesman Harry Forbes expressed confidence that his network will continue to get the BBC products it wants because over-the-air PBS stations can offer a much bigger audience than cable.

The combination should be good to create two to four new international cable channels over the next decade, Hendricks said, as well as the U.S. BBC channel.

Pub Date: 9/28/96

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