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Melita airs F1 on Rai

Melita Cable had no choice yesterday but to relay the Formula 1 race carried on Rai Uno even though the cable company says that this breaches copyright.

Thousands of Grand Prix fans had the luxury of watching the race on Rai, from Monte Carlo, for the first time this season, following an order by the Commission for Fair Trading banning Melita from blocking the transmissions of any Italian television that can be freely received by viewers via a television antenna.

The practice had been resorted to after Melita acquired the Formula 1 transmission rights in Malta as well as the rights to Champions League matches, leading to vociferous protests from subscribers who do not have Melita's Sports Channel.

The ruling, effective for three months, was delivered following a request by the director of the Office of Fair Trading.

Contacted just before the Monaco race, Melita's head of sales and marketing, Franco Degabriele, insisted that the Commission's decision had set a precedent in European copyright law - and someone could soon face the music.

He explained that Melita is not the rights holder for the sporting events in question but simply a licensee that has acquired the TV rights to broadcast the events on its own channels.

While the race from Monte Carlo was still screened on Melita's Sports Channels in both a Maltese and English commentary, many could see the Formula 1 on Rai for the first time this year.

"Today we are effectively breaking the law. It is the prerogative of the rights' holders (FIFA and FOM) whether to take action. Let's also remember that Melita is half owned by foreigners."

Since the signal is received in analogue from Sicily, Mr Degabriele warned that the quality of the transmission on Rai could deteriorate as the weather warmed up further.

He also warned that the analogue terrestrial signal, which permits Melita to receive Rai broadcasts, will become obsolete in 12 to 18 months time - and therefore the cable company would not be able to continue airing such sport events.

With less than two weeks to go to the World Cup, Melita said it will be showing a total of 27 matches live on its Weather and Information Channel for free. These games are those being transmitted by Rai plus two other quarter finals. Melita Sports subscribers will see all 64 matches live.

"It would have been catastrophic for us if Rai aired all the World Cup matches," Mr Degabriele said.

He said Melita's rates were very competitive when compared to what televiewers abroad had to pay for. The Sky package for the World Cup alone is €49 (Lm21). Melita's sports package costs Lm7.50 a month, including VAT, though a one-time five-month offer for the same package costing Lm25 was snapped up by many.

Sports is a very expensive commodity nowadays, Mr Degabriele pointed out, though he refused to say how much Melita had paid to obtain the rights to air the World Cup.

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