Sky TV boss Martin Stewart confirmed today that his company is actively assessing a "next gen box" that would replace its decoders for some customers.
The good news: New features, which were included in a customer survey that was leaked to Geekzone, include:
• Support for 4K or ultra-high resolution video, four-times the picture quality of today's decoders, if old-hat for the likes of Netflix (which is now experimenting with 8K)
• Give you the ability to load your own apps, such as Netflix, Amazon's Prime Video, Disney+, 3Now and TVNZ OnDemand
• Let you watch all of Sky's regular channels plus on-demand content, but over a broadband internet connection rather than requiring a satellite dish
• A remote control with voice search.
• A one terabyte hard drive
The next gen Sky box will run on Google's Android software, cost $199 upfront or $19 a month over a year - a change of tack for Sky, which has not previously charged directly for hardware.
The sum, spread across Sky's 585,000 remaining satellite subs, would cover development costs. Sky's last major decoder upgrade cost the company $120 million.
The bad news: it could take a while.
Stewart said "nothing is definitive at this point," in terms of design or deadlines, but that the earliest the next gen box could arrive would be June next year.
"The important thing is, is that we're actually asking our customers; what they would want to see what they would value," the Sky CEO said.
"And I'm pretty clear and strong messages are coming back around what people would see as a good step forward from where we are today.
"But it takes a while to build a new box. So it will be financial year 2022 [starting July 1, 2021] before we were deploying anything."
For industry watchers, the next gen box Sky has presented to a panel of customers - in PowerPoint form - is similar in features to Vodafone NZ's Vodafone TV box.
And to the Android "puck" first mooted by Stewart predecessor, John Fellet - but axed in the early days of the Stewart regime.
Why bring it back now, when 404,000 of Sky's current customers are streaming Sky's Neon, SkySportNow or RugbyPass through their own Smart TV, Google Chromecast, iPad or other gadget?
Stewart told the Herald that people are getting "app fatigue" according to his Sky's customer surveys. They were sick of juggling multiple devices, or having multiple boxes plugged into their TV.
There's appetite for a "one-stop-shop" like the next gen Skybox that will let people watch regular TV, Sky content plus whatever apps they like.
That sounds like Fellet's Android puck. Why was it scrapped, with millions in development costs written off? Why start again?
"It's just that sometimes when you put all the different partners together, sometimes things don't quite turn out the way that you would like them to. And I think that we found ourselves in a position where we've just gone down the wrong rabbit hole, and we need to pull back and just start again," Stewart says.
Where art thou Spark Sport?
One of the few drawbacks with the current Vodafone TV (and Fellet's planned puck) is that it's not quite a one-stop-shop. Installing Spark Sport is not an option.
Stewart says it's too early to give a definitive lineup of content for the Sky next-gen box.
"But I've been saying this since I got here that we are open to partnering with everyone and Spark is no different.
"I don't think there's any barrier to any form of combination. It's just a question of whether there's a will on both sides."
Sky does broadband
Stewart also offered more details of Sky's foray into broadband today - which will take the broadcaster's tussle with Spark to the telco's own turf (and possibly undermining its will to play ball with its aforementioned sports streaming service).
The Sky boss said he and other staff were currently trialling Sky Broadband, a
UFB fibre service which will be provisioned on in partnership with Chorus.
A commercial launch will follow in the first half of next year - initially offering internet service to Sky's own customers at a cut-price in a bid to keep them loyal.
Sky offering broadband recalls the mooted Sky-Vodafone merger that was blocked by the Commerce Commission and courts.
Is Stewart worried about regulatory intervention if his company offers cut-price sport to lure people to its broadband, or vice versa?
"I don't think the law blocks you from starting a new business line," he said.
Earlier today, Sky reported a $156.8m full-year loss, but the red ink was down to a goodwill impairment and the pay TV broadcaster forecast a return to profit next year, with its bottom line boosted by the earlier-than-expected return of sport.