Telewest customers look set to lose their free Sky TV channels after talks collapsed between two rival digital companies.
Broadcasting giants BSkyB and Virgin Media failed to agree on a rate for the channels, which include Sky One, Two, Three, Sky News and Sky Sports News, leaving relations between the groups at an all-time low.
The talks do not affect the availability of Sky’s premium movies and sports channels.
Virgin Media, rebranded from NTL and Telewest this month, claimed Sky tried to deliberately sabotage the negotiations by doubling the price of its channels.
Chief executive Steve Burch today said Sky’s behaviour was "heavy handed and anti-competitive", adding "consumer choice has been reduced as a result".
The group said it hoped to continue negotiations, despite Sky broadcast promotions last week suggesting the channels were about to disappear from the Virgin network.
The breakdown follows news earlier this month that Sky planned to withdraw channels from free-to-air digital terrestrial television platforms, such as Freeview - a move which is being closely looked at by the industry watchdog Ofcom.
Sky is set to broadcast the channels - Sky Three, Sky News and Sky Sports News - on a terrestrial pay-TV service, set for launch in the summer.
Ofcom said it was looking into whether or not Sky’s plans would "unacceptably diminish the appeal" of Freeview.
BSkyB has also been referred to the media regulator by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) over the promotions aired last week suggesting its five channels could be withdrawn from Virgin Media.
The ASA received 140 complaints from cable customers about the ads.
If Virgin Media cannot agree on a deal for the five-channel Sky package, viewers could lose out on hit shows such as 24 and Lost.
The battlelines were drawn between the two groups at the end of last year when BSkyB scuppered NTL’s hopes of a #5 billion takeover of commercial broadcaster ITV in November when it bought a 17.9% stake in ITV.
BSkyB has maintained that it is merely a long-term investor in ITV, but the move infuriated Sir Richard Branson, NTL’s largest shareholder, and is currently being investigated by Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading.
The rebranded NTL group has pledged to shake up the telecoms and entertainment industry, going head to head with BSkyB after launching its "quadplay" service just a month after Sky’s "See, Speak, Surf" offering came to market.
Virgin Media is also launching an interactive TV-on-demand channel, called Virgin Central, airing shows including Little Britain, West Wing and Nip/Tuck.
Sky denied talks with Virgin Media had collapsed, saying they remained in "active discussions".
The satellite broadcaster hit back at Virgin Media’s claims that it was doubling the cost to prevent a deal being reached, although it indicated it would not be prepared to negotiate on price.
A Sky spokesman said: "Our last offer remains on the table. Sky has negotiated with NTL/Virgin in good faith and has shown flexibility on price."
Virgin Media’s current deal to air the five Sky channels at stake runs out at the end of the month.
The Sky spokesman added: "NTL/Virgin can’t expect a free ride on Sky’s commitment to bring viewers the best TV. They need to decide whether they are going to invest in the programmes that their customers enjoy."