Today sees huge changes in the British media landscape. Jeremy Hunt, the UK culture secretary, has approved Rupert Murdoch’s controversial bid to buy the 61% of pay-TV broadcaster BSkyB he does not already own. Hunt has decided not to refer News Corp’s £7.5 billion bid to UK antitrust regulator the Competition Commission. News Corp has offered to spin off news channel Sky News into a separate company. Rival news organisations have complained that News Corp would control too many news outlets if it owns Sky News and newspapers. Murdoch has offered to keep the loss-making news channel going for another 7-10 years. Sky News loses around £20 million ($33 million) each year. This approval is quite a milestone in seeing Rupert Murdoch becoming even more powerful.
News Corp has balked at selling off Sky News to satisfy Brussels. Despite that nose-thumbing, the European Commission has extended from December 8 to December 22 the deadline for the first phase of its competition investigation of Rupert Murdoch’s £12 billion ($19 billion) takeover of BSkyB. What Brussels is worried about is a 100% News Corp-owned BSkyB deal as the cornerstone of a global pay-TV empire. The European probe is separate from the investigation by British regulator Ofcom which will report on December 31 and still could derail the deal.
City analysts tell me the reason why ITV’s stock price is creeping up again is because BSkyB could be selling its share of ITV. “It would look better from a regulatory point of view,” says Paul Richards of Numis, referring to UK competition regulator Ofcom investigating News Corp’s bid to own Sky outright. (ITV was noticeably absent from the list of signatories including the BBC and Channel 4 who wrote to UK business secretary Vince Cable last month warning him about the deal. Media analyst Claire Enders tells me: “ITV has a lot to gain by cuddling up to BSkyB.”) RTL, Europe’s largest TV company, has been mentioned as one possible buyer of Sky’s ITV stake. NBC is another name in the mix since ITV’s news arm ITN already tailors news stories for the U.S. broadcaster. And Simon Cowell has said he’s been asked by various people in the States whether he’d be interested in putting together a joint bid for ITV. ITV itself is doing well, with its projected December ad revenue figures outperforming last year’s which bodes well for prospects in 2011.
No wonder Rupert Murdoch is so keen to own BSkyB outright. Having invested so heavily in technology, from digital switch-over right through to 3D, Murdoch wants to reap his investment. Sky’s annual turnover in its last financial year to June 2010 was £5.9 billion. It’s estimated this will grow to over £8 billion by 2016. BSkyB, the UK pay-TV operator, had expected to hit 10 million by the end of this year. Instead, it announced it had achieved the target this morning. Steve Liechti, media analyst with Investec tells me the long-term target looked almost impossible when James Murdoch set it back in August 2004, when subscriber numbers were at 7.4 million. At that point subscriber numbers were only inching up. Compared to the old management – which had just been fixated on share price – James Murdoch spent heavily on new technology including HD. Around a third of customers have now upgraded to HD, while almost 25% take Sky’s broadband and home phone package. “It show how successful the dual approach of ‘halo’ product such as HD and 3D and ‘value’ product strategy has been,” Liechti tells me.
Adam Crozier, CEO of UK broadcaster ITV, has suggested making viewers pay for extra content, such as alternative endings. At one point he talked about charging Brit TV viewers to watch hugely popular soap Coronation Street first online, but rowed back from that. Crozier was speaking at the Royal Television Society international conference in London this afternoon. Everything on ITV.com is free at present. Crozier said his top priority is to invest in ITV.com, which he said had been woefully underfunded. The ITV boss reiterated that 50% of revenue must come from pay-TV, online and selling formats overseas, compared with 26% today. He’s not interested in making shows available on content aggregators such as Hulu though. TV commissions will be influenced by how they translate online, he said. “The first thing we need to turn is turn ITV.com into a really robust site,” said Crozier, who joined ITV as CEO in April. Increasing the amount of programming produced in-house by production arm ITV Studios is another priority. In-house only accounts for 47% of programme commissions, he said – and drops to 16% if you strip long-running soaps Coronation Street and Emmerdale out. ITV is looking to acquire independent production companies to beef up ITV Studios. “We need to focus on more long-running renewable series,” he said. “Owning more rights is key to our future.” Crozier said that ITV’s historic problems haven’t stemmed from not knowing what to do but “a …
That’s according to investment bank Nomura, which has compared the average $780 yearly cost of being a Sky customer to what people spend on other things. The average British family also spends as much on Sky as it does on smokes and booze. No wonder that everything the Murdochs say or do is of such interest. I wonder if Sky customers think of their monthly pay-TV subscription as just another vice.
News Corp’s deputy chairman has set his face against increasing its £7.8 billion ($12.4 billion) for the 60% it doesn’t own of BSkyB. Carey has warned the Brit pay-TV giant that Rupert Murdoch’s company has “other options for its cash”. In yesterday’s investor call, Carey described the bid — rejected by BSkyB’s independent board for being too low – as “full and fair.” Although the two companies are unable to agree on price, they have entered into a cooperation agreement. Carey said the immediate focus is on getting regulators to approve the deal. News Corp is due to submit the transaction for European regulatory approval in Brussels within the next few weeks, a process which is expected to take up to one month. The decision could then be handed back to UK regulators. It will be interesting to see what happens next. It’s not as if there are any other bidders out there.
The pay-TV giant has struck an exclusive output deal to be the only place to watch HBO shows from now on. Boardwalk Empire, Martin Scorsese’s series about Atlantic City gangsters, will be the first show to air through the deal in the autumn. Future HBO shows airing exclusively will include Game of Thrones and Luck, executive produced by Michael Mann and starring Dustin Hoffman. The next series of HBO shows such as Entourage and Big Love will also air exclusively on the channel.
Sky is throwing huge amounts of money at programming. It wants to get away from the downmarket image it’s saddled with. Many early adopters lived on council estates – think housing projects – peppering the skyline with satellite dishes. Sky is pulling strenuously upmarket. It’s just announced that it’s taking over ITV’s prestigious arts programme The South Bank Show. And it’s pouring big money into original drama such as Terry Pratchett TV movies and adaptations of crime author Martina Cole.
This year, Sky will spend £1.7 billion ($2.7 billion) on content – most of it on movies and sports rights though. By contrast, ITV will spend £1 billion, Channel 4 £550 million and Channel Five £165 million.
Meanwhile, BSkyB has just announced its fourth-quarter results for the year ending …