The news that BT has bagged exclusive rights to US cable company AMC’s new channel earned the firm plenty of gushing headlines, but has also prompted a myriad of questions from TV fans keen to understand what it means for them.
The most asked and speculated about of these is whether the channel is really exclusive to BT or is simply launching on its TV platform first, before arriving on the Virgin Media and Sky programme guides shortly after.
Answering the first part of this seems pretty easy – BT has exclusive rights to the channel under a “multi-year agreement”. That’s years, not weeks or months.
But from here on it gets slightly less clear.
While the press release talks about AMC’s flagship show Fear the Walking Dead getting its “exclusive UK television premiere” on BT TV, it doesn’t say that the channel will be exclusive to the platform.
Here’s the release’s opening paragraph:
“AMC Networks International (AMCNI) and BT Group today announced a new agreement to launch AMC in the UK this September, making it available exclusively to BT customers.”
And here’s the first line of the quote from Delia Bushell, Managing Director of BT TV and BT Sport:
“We’re delighted to be launching AMC for the first time in the UK, enabling our viewers to watch series such as ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ exclusively from BT.”
Note the absence of any mention of BT TV in both of those.
If you read the full release, of the five mentions BT TV gets, one is part of Bushell’s job title and three are in a paragraph bigging up the platform:
“For BT this represents another step forward in enhancing its television platform, BT TV. In recent months BT TV has extended its content line-up by adding Netflix, Sky Sports 1&2 and a new BT Store service offering ‘Buy to Keep’ movies and TV box sets, including HBO titles like “Game of Thrones.”Last week BT also announced another innovation first with its new BT TV Ultra HD box and BT Sport Ultra HD channel, launching in August.”
There’s only one mention of BT TV in connection with AMC and that’s the one about Fear the Walking Dead getting its “exclusive UK television premiere” on the platform.
Is any of this significant? Does it mean anything? And if so, what?
A lot of it depends on whether BT and AMC are seeking big audiences for the channel or whether the ISP has paid its US partner enough cash for them not to care what the viewing figures are so it can push its own set top box service.
If the second of these is true than it’s probable that the only place you’ll be able to get the channel is by being a BT TV customer, much as you have to be a Sky customer to get Sky Atlantic.
But if BT and AMC are seeking big audiences, the channel would probably be more widely available on similar terms to the BT sports channels which cost £5 per month for BT broadband customers who watch via Sky or £13.50 per month for Sky viewers without BT broadband.
If BT does go down this route, the chances are AMC would be included as part of a wider ‘channel pack’ alongside BT Sport and, possibly, some as yet unannounced acquisitions.
This opens up the possibility of BT competing against Sky on its own satellite platform with a bundle of channels.
Why would it do this?
Perhaps, after years of waiting, the YouView platform which BT TV is built on is finally ready to support the full Sky-owned NOW TV service, complete with its low-cost, contract-free entertainment pack.
If it is, would we really expect BT to sit back and do nothing as its biggest rival started retailing some of the UK’s most popular pay channels direct to its TV customer base?
A combined and reasonably priced BT Sport / entertainment channel pack sold direct to Sky households would be a perfect defence and could explain why BT hasn’t yet announced pricing for the new BT Sport pack on Sky.
But where would this leave Virgin Media and TalkTalk customers?
BT already wholesales its sports channels to Virgin Media which sells them both as a standalone add-on or bundled in its top tier channel packs and in theory could do the same with the new AMC channel.
But while the press release’s wording allows us to speculate about ways BT might sell the channel beyond it’s own TV boxes, “available exclusively to BT customers” doesn’t seem to leave much room for a wholesale deal with rivals.
And a BT spokesperson has this afternoon confirmed to me that “the only way you’ll get the AMC channel is if you’re a BT customer” which would seem pretty definite.