Zee Sports test signals on; targets May-end full launch

MUMBAI / NEW DELHI: Cricket or no cricket, the Subhash Chandra promoted Zee Telefilms is ready to play ball and much more with its proposed sports channel.

Zee Sports, which began running test signals from midnight Sunday, is poised for a formal launch May end-July beginning. It would be an encrypted channel beaming off the PAS-10 satellite.

Contacted by, Zee Telefilms executive vice-president Himanshu Modi confirmed the development, saying, "At the moment we are running test signals to check out the technical aspects of broadcasting a channel."

Asked about the formal launch of Zee Sports, Modi, while admitting that fine-tuning of the project is on, indicated that by early June the sports channel should be on air in its full-fledged avatar, if not earlier in May.

Though the 24-hour sports channel will be encrypted, it is still not clear whether it would be available to cable operators in a free-to-air mode or as a pay channel. The process of seeding the market with boxes would gain momentum in about 10 days time. In the initial phase, the bigger and more urban-centric cities would be targeted through cable networks and Dish TV's DTH service.

As far as programming is concerned, Zee Sports --- whose executives these days are huddled in a series of meetings in Delhi discussing various aspects of launching a sports channel --- is aiming to showcase hot sporting properties from the fields of soccer, motor sports and tennis.

As far as available properties in these three areas are concerned, however, there is very little to go around as of now, information available with indicates. In soccer, there are the Dutch, French and Indian football leagues; in motor sports there is the A1 series and in tennis are the Tennis Masters, ATP and WTA events.

There are two high value properties that will reportedly become available for bidding in the course of this year though. These are Champions League soccer and Formula One (F1) in motor sports. Both of these A-list events are currently with ESPN Star Sports.

F1 becomes available from November while ESS' deal on Champions League runs till the finals of this year's tournament, which is to be played in Istanbul, Turkey, on 25 May. But what needs noting here is that even if Zee Sports were to make a strong play for these two properties, it would only be in the 2006 season that it could look to showcase the events.

Cricket would have been a natural choice to drive a sports channel in India, but most cricketing properties Indian sub-continent rights have already been snapped up by existing major sports broadcasters like ESPN Star Sports, Sony Entertainment Television India and Ten Sports. In recent times, home series have been telecast on pubcaster Doordarshan owing to continuing telecast imbroglio and pending court cases.

Earlier talking to, Chandra had said that the sports channel would require a working capital of approximately Rs 2 billion. There were also talks of forming a joint venture with an Indian media company for the purpose.

Time Warner, which has an existing 26:74 per cent distribution joint venture with Zee Telefilms, had also expressed willingness to partner in the sports channel venture last year. Zee is understood to have kept the proposal under active consideration.

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