Book review: The Battle for Sky

Book review: The Battle for Sky

By Simon Shaps,
Thursday, 18th July 2019
Agatha Raisin (Ashley Jensen), DCI Bill Wong (Matt McCooey) and Charles Fraith (Jason Merrells) in Sky One's Agatha Raisin (Credit: Sky)
Agatha Raisin (Ashley Jensen), DCI Bill Wong (Matt McCooey) and Charles Fraith (Jason Merrells) in Sky One's Agatha Raisin (Credit: Sky)
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Simon Shaps enjoys a new history of Europe’s most successful pay-TV operator but thinks a key question is ignored

Is it just me, or does this account of the relentless march of Sky feel less like a window into the “future of entertainment” and more the TV equivalent of ancient history?

There are glorious deeds and all-conquering heroes. Step forward Jeremy Darroch, and the man who appointed him CEO of Sky, James Murdoch. Not forgetting the tragic fate of doomed and misguided rivals: hold your heads in shame, Setanta and a host of others.

Christopher Williams, deputy business editor of the Telegraph, has written a highly readable and comprehensive sequel to Matthew Horsman’s Sky High: The Rise and Rise of BSkyB, published some 20 years ago. But the story we most want to read about, a story with far-reaching consequences for UK media, is the final shoot-out between the Murdochs, Disney and Comcast and how that might indeed shape the future of entertainment. And that is only covered in the final section of the book.

The Battle for Sky: The Murdochs, Disney,
Comcast and the Future of Entertainment
(Credit: Bloomsbury)

The rest, as they say, is history.

Before we come to the extraordinary climax of the story, as rival bidders sat in five-star hotel rooms on either side of London playing a multi-billion-­pound game of poker, with Sky the prize, there is another important question that this book barely raises: the huge shift in the ownership of UK TV.

The companies involved in the final shoot-out for Sky were, of course, all American, and it is westwards that ownership of the UK production and broadcasting industries are moving – and at some speed.

Williams does quote Andrew Neil, Sky’s founding Chairman, who told the competition investigation into the Fox bid for Sky: “We are in danger of ending up in the situation where nearly all our commercial broadcasters will be foreign owned. We will have given away the crown jewels.”

All this has happened at a time when the BBC and, more recently, Channel 4 have been spending huge sums of money as well as management time regionalising their UK operations, largely in response to political pressure.

Much of the rest of UK television has a very different focus. Ultimate decisions about what happens here are now routinely taken in New York and Los Angeles, Philadelphia (home of Sky’s new owner, Comcast) and Denver (the US home of Liberty Global).

The fate of Love Productions, creator of The Great British Bake-Off, is not really a question Christopher Williams feels he needs to consider, not least because the company could only have ever been a rounding error in the Sky acquisition, but it is worth dwelling on for a moment.

Love’s founders, Richard McKerrow and Anna Beattie, who sold their business to Sky Vision, Sky’s smallish, wholly owned distribution company, now find themselves owned by Comcast. Keep an eye open for Philadelphia cheesecake in the next series of Bake Off. McKerrow and Beattie probably thought they would end up being owned by Fox or Disney.

Of course, money in the bank from the initial sale of the company softens the blow of waking up to discover you have new and unexpected corporate bosses. Carnival, maker of Downton Abbey, certainly seems to have thrived in the NBCU-Comcast family, and Left Bank, maker of The Crown doesn’t seem to have done too badly under Sony’s ownership, nor Wall to Wall within the Warners empire, now owned by AT&T.

But across broadcasting and production, many of our most prized television companies are no longer in control of their own destinies. Bleary-eyed executives complaining that they have been up late “talking to the US” are now a common sight in London’s media haunts.

Sometime in the next few years an enterprising financial journalist – somebody very like Christopher Williams – should write a book to answer a strangely unexamined question: are the US media giants good custodians of companies they acquire outside their home market?

I will offer one anecdote to get that analysis started. At the end of a period doing some work for an LA-based company, a senior executive there asked me to tell him what time it was in London and what currency we used in the UK. It seemed funny at the time.

There are many things that can be said about the Murdochs, but I am pretty confident they always knew what time it was in Osterley or Wapping, as well as Mumbai and Shanghai. They also had a pretty good handle on currency fluctuations across the world, down to the last cent.

The story of how Rupert Murdoch bet the shop on Sky, installed a succession of hand-picked CEOs to run the company (falling out with some) and ended up, in the teeth of considerable shareholder hostility, giving the gig to his son, James, is largely familiar.

Under James Murdoch, the success of its triple-play strategy of bundling pay-TV with broadband and telephony, which gave it access to a market three times greater than it had targeted up until that point, was fundamental. More recently, with Darroch at the helm, it has expanded internationally, principally into Italy and Germany. It has invested in its online platform Now TV and, as the SVoD challenge has loomed, the company has continued, above all, to invest in technology to improve its offer to its 50 million customers across Europe.

At the same time, the world around Sky has been changing fast, as a range of competitors with unimaginably deep pockets appeared on the horizon. Losing Champions League football to BT Sport hurt Sky – perhaps most damagingly, denting its self-image as the all-conquering upstart turned behometh.

But what would happen if Amazon got really serious about launching a knock-out bid for the Premier League? Or Apple? How would Sky fare if the major movie studios launched streaming platforms for their own movies?

Could a platform so associated in the minds of consumers with sport and movies compete as hard in premium drama if the world went box-set crazy? So it was that Rupert Murdoch, sensitive to the headwinds across his empire, “confronted his own mortality” and decided to “cash in his chips”.

He had tried to tempt Time Warner into a merger, but failed, only to see the US telecoms giant AT&T move in and acquire the company for $85bn. Of course, one implication of the AT&T deal was to raise a very large question mark over the future of Sky’s deal with Warner-owned HBO, which was the foundation of Sky Atlantic.

"The sale of Sky to Comcast was a “sub-plot in the end of an era for the Murdoch dynasty"

True, Sky had forged a deal with Netflix in 2018 that made the service available to its Sky Q customers.

Williams writes that this deal helped lessen the immediate threat to Sky’s business from Netflix. But, he says: “More serious near-term challenges may come from Amazon and Apple, who, as well as spending millions of pounds producing programmes are owners of vast technology platforms that could usurp Sky in living rooms across the world.”

In Williams’s telling phrase, the sale of Sky to Comcast was a “sub-plot in the end of an era for the Murdoch dynasty”. Comcast had crashed Fox’s party with Disney, bidding some £3bn more for the company than Bob Iger’s company. Disney had scooped up most of 21st Century Fox’s assets, its film and television studios, FX, Nat Geo and Star India but, in the end, was outbid for Sky.

In his first big announcement since the Comcast takeover, Darroch announced the launch of a new European production operation, called Sky Studios. Investment in original programming is being doubled.

So perhaps Comcast will turn out to be one of the good guys when the day of reckoning comes for US media’s ownership of vast swathes of UK television. Comcast knows, perhaps better than most, that content ownership combined with access to paying customers, supported by leading-edge technology, is TV’s new black.