This is turning out to be the mother of programme acquisition battles. At stake is the telecast rights for all international cricket matches played in India over the next four years. Reacting strongly to ESPN-STAR's charge that Zee, the highest bidder, had not fulfilled all the criteria, Ashish Kaul, Vice-president, Corporate Brand Development, Essel Group, which owns the Zee channels, said, "We have met all the criteria. Nothing can stop us from getting the rights from BCCI."
When the bids were opened by PriceWaterhouseCoopers on Saturday, it was found that Zee had put in the highest bid at $ 260 million, followed by ESPN-STAR at $ 230 million, Prasar Bharti had offered $ 150 million, Sony Entertainment $ 132 nmillion, and Ten Sports $115 million.
Stung by the fact that they had been outbid, the specialist sports broadcaster combine of ESPN-STAR had put out a press statement on Saturday itself, claiming that although Zee had offered a larger bid, "they clearly did not qualify as they have had no experience of broadcasting or producing live international cricket events as specified in the tender." RC Venkateish, Managing Director, ESPN Software India, claimed, "Under the terms for the bid, the ESPN-STAR Sports bid was the highest qualifying bid under the rules of bidding specified by BCCI."
ESPN-STAR, a byword in sports programming on television, pointed out that the tender invitation of BCCI clearly outlines that "…channel network should have successfully telecast live and delayed international cricket events of international standard having at least two years' experience (not as a licensee) shall be entitled to the invitation to tender".
Said Kaul, when contacted by exchange4media, "This accusation is unfortunate. In business, you win some, you lose some. It is an unfounded argument from ESPN-STAR because we have ensured that we have fulfilled each and every criterion specified for making the bid. We have met all of them -- all documentary requirements regarding infrastructure, experience, etc. It is very simple: BCCI won't entertain a bid if you don't meet the stipulated criteria. The fact that our bid has been accepted is indication enough that we have met all requirements."
Rebutting ESPN-STAR's charge regarding lack of cricket telecast experience, Kaul observed, "Contrary to what ESPN-STAR is claiming, forget two years, Zee has shown cricket internationally for 10 years, from 1995 onwards."
Kaul further said, "How can they point fingers at us? ESPN does not have any production facility of its own. They outsource everything. They are nothing but a marketing company. It is strange that despite this, they have all along got the cricket telecast rights!"
As for Zee's capabilities, Kaul said, "People must remember that Zee is the largest Indian television network operating internationally. We have 250 million viewers worldwide and we telecast in 83 countries. And Zee has the largest production facility in the entire SAARC region."
Asked if Zee is planning a new sports channel if they got the rights, Kaul said, "We are debating this at present. For the first year, we will use one of our existing channels to show the cricket matches. Thereafter, we may start a separate Sports channel."
Interestingly, both the networks appear to be wooing Doordarshan in their fight for the cricket rights. In its press release, ESPN-STAR claims it has entered into an agreement with Prasar Bharti to share matches with DD. Besides the revenue share on advertising, ESPN-STAR also claims to have committed a placement fee to DD for carrying ESPN- STAR telecast in its terrestrial network. It also says it has outlined to BCCI a slew of measures to rejuvenate the domestic game.
Zee too has outlined a very similar package to DD. Claiming that Zee was willing to share the telecast rights with DD, Kaul said, "We have not only offered the highest amount, but also committed Rs 95.5 crore - over and above the bid amount - to develop domestic cricket. Our interest is just not to telecast cricket, but also to develop cricket at the lower levels."