Fox faces sports-media anti-trust investigation

Sports broadcasters in EU nations raided as the EC seeks to cut market monopolisation

LONDON • The London offices of Rupert Murdoch's Fox Networks were raided on Tuesday by European Union (EU) anti-trust regulators as part of a probe into the distribution of sports-media rights.

The inspections were carried out in several EU countries at companies related to broadcasting rights for various sports events, the European Commission (EC) said.

Officials are expected to stay through today at the west London offices of Fox Networks. Inspectors are also believed to have seized documents and computer records, according to The Daily Telegraph, which first reported the raid.

The probe comes at a difficult time for 21st Century Fox - the owner of Fox Networks - which has spent months trying to gain UK and EU approval to purchase Sky, the British pay-TV giant.

Fox is currently grappling with the UK's competition authority, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), over plans to buy the 61 per cent of Sky that it does not already own.

EU regulators approved the acquisition last April, but the CMA is continuing to assess it as part of a separate media plurality review.

The CMA provisionally ruled earlier this year that Murdoch's planned takeover was not in the public interest and that a deal would hand him too much power in swaying public opinion.

"Fox Networks Group is cooperating fully with the EC inspection," a company spokesman told AFP.

Anti-trust raids by EU regulators are a first step in investigating suspected violations and do not signal guilt, the commission added.

The raids may be an offshoot of a long-running EU probe into pay-TV rights.

Regulators have been taking aim at industry contracts that prevent people from viewing movies and TV programmes outside the country in which they are sold, focusing on Sky's deals with major motion picture studios including Walt Disney, Warner Brothers, NBC Universal and Sony Pictures.

While the EU pay-TV probe has been simmering for years, the UK review of the Sky deal could be resolved within weeks as regulators prepare to turn in their final report to government ministers by May 1.

Last week, Fox offered to spin off Sky News as an independent company or sell it to Disney to address lawmakers' concerns about having too much influence in British media. Fox has also proposed to ring-fence the 24-hour news channel while they have agreed to sell most entertainment assets, including the stake in Sky to Disney for US$52.4 billion (S$68.6 billion).

Sports broadcasting has become a multi-billion dollar business across the world, with big TV networks vying for exclusive rights to show live games.

Football in particular attracts the big spenders. The bulk of rights to show English Premier League matches in February sold for around £4.46 billion (S$8.2 billion), with more games still up for grabs.

The EC said there is "no legal deadline to complete inquiries into anti-competitive conduct", with the duration of the probes dependent on factors including the complexity of the case and cooperation from those involved.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2018, with the headline 'Fox faces sports-media anti-trust investigation'. Print Edition | Subscribe