John Petter defended BT’s £1.2bn splurge on European football rights at an RTS early evening event in March.
The BT Consumer boss also discussed the company’s first steps into drama, but refused to be drawn on any plans for expansion.
One day before the RTS event, BT extended its TV rights for the Champions League and Europa League until 2021 – but had to shoulder a 32% price hike.
In a wide-ranging conversation with Sally Bundock, presenter of World Business Report on the BBC News Channel, Petter denied that BT had spent too much acquiring rights that no other company – Sky included – was overly keen to win.
“I think it’s reasonable to assume that they were interested,” he said. “I would have expected [Sky to bid] – it would have been a rational thing for them to do.”
“We’ve paid more but I think we’ve got a lot more for it,” Petter continued.
He pointed to the exclusivity of the rights, which means that Champions League highlights will no longer be shown on ITV. “A lot of people clearly chose not to pay for BT Sport because the highlights were free,” claimed Petter.
The timing of Champions League fixtures is also changing, with games kicking off at 6pm and 8pm on match nights. Currently all games start at 7.45pm.
Petter explained that this would allow the company to boost its revenues from licensing pubs to air matches.
A further attraction for BT was that four English teams would now be guaranteed entry into the group stages of the competition.
Champions League sponsors have apparently expressed disquiet about the lack of exposure their products will get on free-to-air TV now BT holds exclusive rights.
Petter, however, argued that companies “can now reach a mass audience through social media”.
BT is “talking to various parties to find the right partner” to show this season’s Champions League and Europa League finals live and free on social media. Highlights of matches will also be broadcast free on social media.
Outside the two finals, however, games will not be shown live on social media. “Having paid £1.2bn for them, you’d be out of your mind to do that,” said Petter.
Despite BT’s social media focus, terrestrial telly may still get a look in on the two European club competitions.
Petter admitted that BT would look at sub-licensing deals – if the price was right: “There’s no obligation from UEFA to [sell] rights to public service broadcasters – we don’t have to and we don’t need to because we can get to a mass audience through social media. [But] if there’s a great deal out there, I would [take it].”
All photos by Paul Hampartsoumian
Petter, who has been chief executive of BT Consumer since September 2013, runs the company’s broadband, television, telephony and BT mobile services, a huge division that boasts an annual turnover of £5bn.
He denied that the cost of the football deal would lead to a rise in broadband prices.
“The broadband marketplace in incredibly competitive,” he said. “A lot of people have said to me, ‘Are you going to rack up the broadband prices?’ Ultimately, I think I can’t because I have to compete in broadband.”
Instead, Petter pointed to other pools he can draw on, including advertising and the “pubs and clubs market, which is actually very lucrative”.
Petter argued that “the business case for other content is more challenging than the business case for sport”.
Almost two years ago BT struck a deal with AMC, the US cable network that brought Mad Men to TV, and has aired series such as Fear the Walking Dead.
More new drama is coming, including The Son, starring Pierce Brosnan as a Texan oil tycoon, and The Terror, a historical drama executive produced by Ridley Scott.
Petter, however, would not commit to an expansion of its drama slate: “I’m neither ruling in nor ruling out doing more – I’m going to be watching very closely at the progress we make in the next year.”
If BT did invest more heavily in drama, however, it would not be as a lone producer.
“Drama is a high-risk game,” he continued. “It would be rash of me to say that we would go and do this entirely on our own. We would probably need to go into partnerships.”
“Is this a company that is prepared to make bold moves? We bought [mobile phone network] EE and got into sport – people didn’t expect us to do those things,” continued Petter. “We can [do] bold things but there has to be a business case.”
The RTS early evening event, “In conversation with John Petter”, was held at the BT Tower in central London on 7 March and produced by Helen Scott.