Hard News by Russell Brown


The future: be careful what you wish for

For long-term mediawatchers, there is a particularly tasty irony in the news that Sky Television was not aware that TVNZ was negotiating to be  a partner in Coliseum Sports Media's snaffling of local screen rights to English Premier League football.

NBR's Chris Keall reported it thus:

TVNZ's involvement has caught media on the hop - and possibly also Sky TV, TVNZ's partner in the slow-selling igloo. "The next igloo board meeting would be an interesting place to be fly on wall," a Sky TV insider tells NBR.

TVNZ's involvement with news to the pay TV broadcaster. Sky TV corporate communications manager Kirsty Way tells NBR Online "We were not aware about TVNZ."

Things were the other way around in 1999 when the Roseanne Meo-chaired TVNZ board made probably the worst decision in the company's history -- yes, I know, big call -- and bucked all reasonable advice in firesaling TVNZ's 12.6% shareholding in Sky. As I wrote a few years later in The Listener:

The board justified the deal with the promise of a “positive and co-operative ongoing relationship with Sky and its existing major shareholders”. But even as it did so, Sky was holding secret discussions with TV3 for free-to-air replay rights for the country’s most popular televised sport, rugby.

When the deal duly went to TV3, TVNZ executives were outraged (and presumably embarrassed). Sky CEO Nate Smith explained to the New Zealand Herald that, with TVNZ cutting its ties with Sky and making its own plans for a pay TV service, letting it have the rugby rights “would have been like selling guns to the enemy”.

You can read the whole column to remind yourself of what happened next, but it wasn't pretty.

TVNZ's role in the Coliseum venture will, of course, be confined to screening one Premier League match on Sundays and a Monday night highlights package, but the EPL deal is the biggest indication yet that, as Chris Barton wrote recently in the Herald, Sky's dream run may be unravelling.

Coliseum Sports Management's wresting of the EPL rights from Sky is a signal that Sky can no longer be complacent about its hugely dominant position in the New Zealand TV market. Coliseum's Premier League Pass will deliver 380 matches, live and on-demand, via the internet and to iOS and Android devices. Dedicated apps for major-brand smart TVs (it will be possible straight away to watch on your internet-connected TV, but fiddly) and Apple TV seem to be in the works.

It's a bold initiative that leverages rapid developments in the technology and business models of delivering television via IP networks (it will use the same back end as NFL Game Pass), provides a much-needed incentive for ultra-fast broadband uptake (although it will work on most internet connections) and encourages consumers to get themseves IPTV-ready. Coliseum CEO Tim Martin emphatically promised at the launch that the company will not enter exclusive deals with any telco. It's the emergence of something we've been talking about for years.

It also kind of sucks if you're a football fan who wants to watch something more than just English football, or a football fan who wants to watch other premium sports too. You'll have to ask yourself whether you want to pay $150 per Premier League season in addition to your Sky subscription. There is a downside to the disaggregation of content monopolies, at least in the short term.

I don't think anyone can say how this will all shake out -- whether it's just a blip in Sky's dominance, a frustrating balkanisation of sports TV or an environment that offers flexibility and choice to the consumer. But it has begun.

I'll be interviewing Coliseum CEO Tim Martin on Media3 next week.

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