British TV’s best-kept secret

British TV’s best-kept secret

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TalkTalk TV is the UK’s smallest pay-TV provider. Its Managing Director, Aleks Habdank, explains to Steve Clarke why it can only get bigger

You could say that Aleks Habdank is a man who is ahead of his time. Eight years ago, Virgin Media appointed him head of on-demand. In those days, Netflix was in transition from a DVD-rental company to an online one, Sky was thriving despite the fallout from the economic crisis, and TalkTalk was a subsidiary of Carphone Warehouse.

Today, on-demand is mainstream and Sky is a pan-European behemoth being fought over by some of the world’s biggest media groups.

Meanwhile, Aleks Habdank runs TalkTalk TV, the smallest of Britain’s pay-TV companies and, nowadays, part of a standalone public company that competes head-on with Sky, Virgin and BT for broadband subscribers.

A neutral observer might wonder why such an experienced veteran of subscription-TV isn’t working for one of the big players. Prior to working for Virgin, he was employed by Liberty Global, where he spent a decade in various roles. Before that, he worked for the UK-cable TV pioneer NTL.

At Virgin, he was smart enough to figure out which way the wind was blowing when, in 2012, he signed a deal with Netflix.

He recalls: “We had a long debate about it but, ultimately, it was decided that it was going to happen, so better to have them inside the tent. Netflix is there, you can’t hide from it.”

At Virgin, he also oversaw the launch of both TiVo and Virgin Movies.

At TalkTalk, which he joined more than two years ago, he has moved fast to bring the service up to date.

During a demo of TalkTalk TV, which he gives me at the company’s west London HQ, it is hard not to be impressed. The functionality looks good across TV and mobile, especially for on-demand and catch-up. The latter includes a backwards function.

However, TalkTalk TV’s boss knows that, with only 1.3 million TV subscribers, his company is something of a minnow and remains a bit of a mystery to many people. “If I’m brutally honest, our biggest challenge is awareness,” he concedes. “A lot of people in the UK aren’t aware that TalkTalk is an alternative to paying Sky or Virgin vast amounts of money to watch the content they want.”

He adds: “A former colleague once said to me that TalkTalk TV is British TV’s best-kept secret. That was a bit unkind but the spirit behind it was that the product is great.”

He continues: “We are the smallest but that has certain benefits – we can be more nimble. That allows us to focus on looking after the customer and do the right thing by our customers, rather than having to meet big, corporate objectives.”

To a Sky subscriber such as myself, the BBC iPlayer looks much more user-friendly than what I’m used to. According to Aleks Habdank, it boasts better functionally because there’s more content and better catch­up, which, he says, is available “immediately following live transmission”.

Having completed a deal with both Sky Sports and BT Sports in 2016, the TalkTalk executive claims that the only content his company lacks that Sky offers are shows found on Sky Atlantic.

Even then, having done a secondary rights deal with HBO, Sky Atlantic’s most popular show, Game of Thrones, is available on-demand on TalkTalk the day after episodes are premiered on Sky. “You can buy an entire series to keep for £14,” he points out.

The pay-as-you-go TalkTalk TV store was launched two years ago and features a library of movies and TV series.

As full-fat pay-TV packages become less and less attractive to consumers, especially young people keen to save money, perhaps TalkTalk’s time may be approaching. It recently launched a skinny bundle that costs a mere £7 a month: the 13 channels include popular Sky, UKTV, Fox and Viacom services.

“We are the youngest player in this space,” says the TalkTalk chief. “We should be compared to Virgin and Sky. I’d say we’re better than BT. Ultimately, it boils down to the content.”

He adds: “We are pretty much like-for-like with Virgin. BT doesn’t offer some key pay-TV staples such as Sky One and Sky Living. We do.”

Of course, what TalkTalk TV lacks is exclusive content, something that BT Vision does have, thanks to its deal with AMC.

But one element in the TalkTalk TV mix that is strikingly original is a remote control specially designed for young children. Launched last summer, it is priced at £5. Unlike traditional remotes, it is circular and brightly coloured, the result of extensive research in schools. The child-centric remote operates in tandem with an app that takes younger audiences into the kids’ viewing area of TalkTalk’s EPG.

For parents, it has the added advantage of being able to set the times of the day when children are allowed to watch TV. This, in theory, should help avoid disputes over when to turn off the telly. There is even an icon that appears on the screen to tell the young viewer there is, say, only five minutes left until bedtime. “Children pay attention to the TV,” he insists.

The Habdank kids are too old, at 11 and eight, to take full advantage of this remote. “We asked parents what the pain points are for parents and children when they watch TV,” he explains. “One of the things that came out is that parents want their children to be safe and know their children are not going to wander off and watch inappropriate content. Second, kids like to feel in control.”

As good as the remote looks, it is hard to see how it will substantially impact on TalkTalk TV’s growth. It boss agrees that the brand is still somewhat tarnished by an incident in 2015, when 157,000 subscribers’ personal details were stolen following a cyberattack. This security breech led to a record fine of £400,000.

“We have a combination of awareness and historical brand drag to overcome but, increasingly, the customers we have stay with us and love us.”

Not only is churn reducing, but the company’s lowest cancellation rates come from its fixed, low-price broadband and TV customers .

Meanwhile, TalkTalk’s ARPU (average revenue per user) is around £26, and Aleks Habdank expects that “to edge up over the next couple of years”.

So where would he like TalkTalk TV to be in five years’ time? “I’d like to have significantly dented Sky and Virgin. But I’m not going to give you a figure [on subscriber numbers].”

Our interview takes place on the day that Comcast announces its $22bn bid for Sky. In a rapidly consolidating media world, where does this leave companies such as TalkTalk?

“It’s a good question but I will pass on it,” he replies. “The answer to that is beyond my pay grade.”

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