John Drinnan 's Opinion

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

John Drinnan: Soccer loss dents Sky dominance

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Losing the broadcast rights to English Premier League football breaks the pay-tv company's spell over sports

Online reaction to news of the loss of EPL soccer to Coliseum shows no one really loves Sky Sports. Photo / AP
Online reaction to news of the loss of EPL soccer to Coliseum shows no one really loves Sky Sports. Photo / AP

Marketers are working on a major shake-up to create a more "fun" image for the company which beams its programmes into half of New Zealanders' homes. But it will need more than another round of cute ads to change Sky TV's image.

Coincidentally, the marketing makeover comes as new online pay TV provider Coliseum has outbid Sky for the rights to the English Premier League soccer competition.

It's a small incursion. But it's the first real chink in Sky's dominance of sport which underpins its dominance of the whole pay TV sector.

Looking at online reaction to Coliseum - by way of comments on a column by Herald sports writer Chris Rattue - the glaring conclusion is nobody really loves Sky Sports.

Sky TV chief executive John Fellet confirmed the makeover was to give the company a more "fun" persona.

The approach has apparently become viable after News Corporation sold out earlier this year, presumably because Rupert Murdoch's company preferred a more corporate image.

Fellet would like Sky showing off its content and branding more prominently. "We've got cars running around town that could be from anywhere - why don't we have vans with Scooby Do on the side?" Fellet says.

He could be right; brighter livery and a less corporate image might help. But in my opinion, the lack of love for Sky goes deeper than decals on vans and cartoon stickers, and into Sky's programmes and promotion.

For instance, who is the face of Sky Sport? The commentary team is fine. But sports presenters should be stars and the packaging around games should have more energy, buzz and wit.

The coverage of the Rugby World Cup improved, but the Olympics - for all its horrific cost to Sky - were weak in terms of presentation.

If you're paying to see these people you have to like them.

The pressure is on now that it has competition on the horizon.

Sky has done very well from shmoozing politicians and has kept competition at bay, and that has paid off in annual profits. Now they have to invest in their love-ability.

GLADIATOR SPORTS

Sky TV will not be cutting prices for the sports package after losing rights to the English Premier League soccer competition.

Chief executive Fellet says last year the EPL only made up 1.5 per cent of sports package viewing, and overall, sports rights costs were up 10 per cent this year.

But the loss of EPL to new pay TV player Coliseum has broken the spell for Sky TV's dominance of sports right negotiations.

I'm sure Fellet will be right and there won't be a big drop-off in customers for its sports package, which is centred on Rugby Super 15, the NRL Rugby League competition and cricket.

It remains to be seen how many people will pay Coliseum for its $150 online platform PremierLeaguePass.com when it launches in August with 250 games, or for the $24.95 day packages. There will also be a platinum pass featuring all 380 games for $239.90.

Technology-focused media types talk confidently about the prospects of people watching EPL games on iPads and phones or on TVs hooked up to computers.

But most consumers are yet to be convinced that sports entertainment comes from anywhere other than the TV in the lounge.

The other factor, of course, is that the fragmentation of sports rights will wind up costing consumers more than when Sky was the only game in town. EPL has a cultish following, and Coliseum subscribers won't necessarily drop Sky Sports.

But they may well drop out of the lacklustre movie package, or premier channels like the Rugby channel or SoHo.

The main effect of Coliseum won't be instantaneous. But it has cut the chain that linked Sky TV to a role as the only supplier of sports in this country.

Coliseum has no immediate plans for expansion.

Other sports codes who have been given short shrift from Sky might beat a path to the door of Coliseum, or any other entrepreneur in the future, drawn to its niche broadcasting business plan.

Sky shares slumped after the surprise announcement, closing down 26c on Wednesday and dropping another 16c yesterday to close at $5.25.

GOOD & BAD

TVNZ plans to show one game a week from the Coliseum EPL package is a small coup for the state broadcaster.

Which sums up how dire things have become for sport on free-to-air TV.

The deal with a Sky competitor also diminishes the view that the state broadcaster had effectively killed its programming options by becoming a minority partner with Sky TV in the pay television venture, Igloo.

The arrival of a competitor may also be useful for Sky, coinciding with imminent completion of an investigation by the Commerce Commission.

The long-awaited report is expected to lead to Sky voluntarily changing its contracts with internet service providers, so companies buying programming from Sky in the wholesale market will not be prevented from buying content elsewhere.

Long accused of having an anti-competitive hold on content, Sky TV will be able to claim that it does face competition and the commission, which reports to a Government that desperately wants not to regulate Sky, can avoid the onerous obligations being sought by other players in the industry.

YES, MINISTER

Few will have been more disappointed by the closure of NZ Truth newspaper than Judith Collins, the Minister of Justice and prospective National Party leader, whose ambitions have been hitched to the right-wing blogger Cameron Slater, aka Whale Oil, the paper's erstwhile editor.

Slater is credited with reviving the profile of Truth and nobody blames him for its demise, certainly not the Justice Minister who heads his fan club.

In its 125 years and under different editors, many National Party and right-wing politicians have been promoted in Truth.

Yet few have been as enthusiastically fostered as Collins, who has praised his "excellent well-sourced material".

After the news about Truth, Collins said on Twitter: "Cam, you made NZ Truth a compulsory purchase in Parliament - once the porn was removed.

"Your team did a great but impossible job".

Like her great hero, the media-savvy Dame Margaret Thatcher, the minister and prime-ministerial hopeful is enjoying her place in the Sun - or the local equivalent at least.

COUNTRY COOKIN'

Fairfax Media has rejected speculation that a company review is expected to lead to wide-ranging upheavals and budget cuts for regional titles.

Acting managing director Andrew Boyle said the review would probably include more co-ordinated sharing of copy using hubs for features. The spokesperson said the review would be completed around December.

TV3 EXIT

Another senior executive is leaving MediaWorks, signalling stormy weather ahead.

Rachel Jean is head of MediaWorks comedy and drama, and has joined former programming boss Kelly Martin, who is now managing director at South Pacific Pictures.

SPP founder and chairman John Barnett said Jean, who has had a key role in the development of TV3 product, would be working on both television and film project at the firm, which is fully owned by British firm All3Media.

There has been widespread speculation that with reality TV producer Julie Christie on the presently three-person board of MediaWorks, TV3 might move out of drama.

Sceptics point out that the bulk of drama budgets are paid by taxpayers through NZ on Air, and TV3 has made its name with dramas like Outrageous Fortune. The drama series Harry has also rated well.


What do you think? Have you say in the comments.

- NZ Herald

John Drinnan

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

John Drinnan is the media writer for the New Zealand Herald. A business journalist for twenty years, he has been editor of the specialist film and television title "Screen Finance" in London, focussing on the European TV and film industry. He has been writing about media in New Zealand since the deregulation of the television industry in the late 1980s. He is focused on the business side of the digital revolution in media.

Read more by John Drinnan

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