Today’s Court ruling that a decision not to force Sky to wholesale its sports channels was administratively flawed feels like a relic from a long gone era.
The pay-TV landscape has changed a lot since the satellite broadcaster’s rivals first grumbled that they couldn’t secure what they saw as fair access to the channels which Sky risked billions of their shareholders’ pounds into establishing and growing.
But change hasn’t only come from well-financed rivals, Sky has shaken things up by offering its full suite of entertainment, movie and sports channels on flexible, commitment-free terms via NOW TV.
I single out BT because it’s the last of the complainants – and the force behind today’s appeal – which hasn’t agreed to carry Sky Sports on terms they’re happy with. The company has long been able to sell the channels to its Vision+ box users but so far hasn’t reached a deal to offer them to users of its newer YouView boxes.
But while there’s lots of forum and below the line sympathy for BT, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t wholesale its sport channels to Sky, preferring instead to sell them directly to those Sky customers who don’t get broadband from BT and so don’t benefit from the free sport deal.
Even if you don’t have a current Sky subscription, BT will still sell you the channels to watch on the Sky+ box its rival provided you with and subsidised.
By the end of 2014 BT customers wanting Sky Sports and Sky customers wanting BT Sports on their existing boxes will be able have them. They just might have to spend a few minutes ordering them from a company they don’t already have a billing relationship with.
Which is very much a first world problem and perhaps not sufficient reason to spend more public money on Ofcom and Competition Appeals Tribunal hearings.
That’s especially so when you factor in that despite all the puffery and hype, even where Sky Sports is available from non-Sky platforms, very few people actually subscribe.
According to TalkTalk’s latest market update “less than 2% of TV customers” added a premium sports package – by which it means Sky Sports – to their bundle in the second quarter of the financial year.
Take-up among BT’s Vision+ box users is understood to be equally low with just couple of tens of thousands taking the channels.
Even Virgin Media, which has been happily selling both Sky Movies and Sky Sports for years, only had a total of 831,000 subscribers – around one-fifth of its customer base – to both sets of channels as of late-2012 (opens download). It doesn’t break this figure down between sports and movie subscribers.
There may well be a perception benefit in being seen to offer the channels but if no-one’s really buying them is it really all worth the candle?
Would BT not be better continuing to invest time and money in its own content rather than asking regulators to guarantee it access to Sky’s?
BT Sport has already been a huge success for the company, delivering it two of its best quarters for retail customer retention and broadband sign-ups in years. It should be looking to capitalise on that success by investing in high quality entertainment programming and setting up a channel to show it on.
Inspired by UKTV’s pally channel names, let’s refer to BT’s new channel as Beattie, named after Maureen Lipman’s memorable character from the firm’s ads.
Beattie could either be exclusive to BT’s customers – think Sky Atlantic – or wholesaled to rivals in order to recoup some of the investment.
And like Sky’s flagship, exclusive channel, it could be a mix of imports and original commissions. There are tons of concepts, pitches and pilots out there desperate to be made and a wealth of high quality US shows which never find their way here.
In time Beattie might even get some siblings, each following the established model of targeting specific demographics to maximise viewer and advertiser interest.
BT’s already proven that it can succeed in the tough world of pay-TV sports broadcasting, by comparison entertainment TV is relatively easy with rights much less keenly fought over and more content available.
Which is why so many believe BT’s entry into general entertainment broadcasting is a matter of when, not if.
But there’s little point investing in such new ventures if, in your determination to secure access to them, you make it look like your rivals’ channels are the ones everyone really wants to be watching.