After decades spent botching every one of its online products, Sky has just unveiled a bold new strategy which appears to answer its critics. Duncan Greive surveys its tumultuous history and asks CEO John Fellet whether this time really will be different.
By the mid-1990s, Sky TV had become a bonafide media phenomenon in New Zealand. It had launched with just three channels and a fairly basic array of content, yet attracted hundreds of thousands of subscribers eager for more than what free-to-air TV could offer.
Unfortunately it also had a serious problem as a business: the more it grew, the more it lost: $18m in 1994, rising steadily for years. “We were losing a million dollars a week when I took over,” recalls John Fellet of the state of play when he became CEO in 2001.
It was also beset by competition – nascent cable operators, booming video stores and giant free-to-air networks alike. Meanwhile it was undergoing a perilous technological transition, from a well-understood encrypted UHF signal to a service which asked subscribers to install a satellite dish on their house. (This was not a small thing – some councils required land use consents to allow it to happen).
Perhaps perversely, Sky chose 1997 to list on New Zealand stock exchange. It was was an acknowledgement that despite an extraordinary roll call of current and former investors – including TVNZ, ESPN and Rupert Murdoch – Sky TV remained an unproven entity, one which required more money than any of its owners was willing to give.
The little New Zealand startup’s IPO was supported by Goldman Sachs, and its key executives went on a heady weeks-long roadshow to support its listing. The pair began it in New Zealand before heading offshore – to Hong Kong, Singapore, Germany, the UK and finally the US.
When they arrived in New York they got a quite extraordinary call: George Soros wanted to meet them. At the time Soros was perhaps the most famous investor in the world, fresh off “breaking the bank of England” with an enormous currency bet a few years earlier.
In the room Fellet absorbed one of his most important business lessons: “I realised I was not the customer of Goldman Sachs,” he says. “George Soros was. I was just the soup du jour.” Soros liked the presentation enough to take a small stake.
Despite the glitz of a media business going public during a sustained boom, the company was open about the threats it faced. The IPO prospectus noted the spectre of piracy, along with a pay TV offering from First Media, owned by the giant former state telephone company Telecom, among its key competitors.
There was more. “Sky’s share price performance is … dependent on a number of complex and interrelated factors,” the 1997 IPO prospectus read, going on to list 13 bullet points which included, consecutively:
- the Company’s ability to acquire popular programming at competitive prices;
- any loss of key management;
- changes in technology affecting pay television, including interactive services
Twenty years on and despite business and media revolutions, much hasn’t changed. Sky is beset by piracy, which its Fellet noted in Sky’s 2017 annual report is “our biggest competitor”. Spark (formerly known as Telecom) are buying content, which is affecting Sky’s “ability to acquire popular programming”.
“Changes in technology”, specifically “interactive services” like internet video on demand, have facilitated a massive increase in competition. To cap it all, this March saw the announcement of the “loss of key management” in John Fellet, its CEO of 17 years, who signalled his impending retirement.
Perhaps that is why, 21 years on from its IPO, its shares sell for $2.42 – two lousy cents more than they listed for in 1997.
All this might imply a business which had muddled along through the intervening years – done enough to survive, but not to thrive.
And yet nothing could be further from the truth. Sky spent most of the period from 1997-2017 as one of our most successful and fast growing big companies. Its introduction of satellite-driven digital distribution was a technological masterstroke which made it accessible to almost all New Zealanders, regardless of their location in our rugged geography. It expanded from 321,000 subscribers in 1998, to a high of 852,679 in 2016 – representing slightly more than half of all New Zealand households.
Its revenue hit an all-time high the same year – $928m – and its churn (the percentage of customers it gains or loses in a given year) has halved from the time of its listing.
Most importantly it has transformed itself from the calamitously money-losing outfit of the 90s to a kind of corporate ATM. It peaked with a gaudy $172m profit in 2015, when its share price was over $6 and it sat comfortably among the 10 most valuable listed companies in New Zealand, worth over $2bn. Even now it still comfortably delivers over $100m a year.
A spectacularly good run, from a company which could claim to be both New Zealand’s first modern tech success story (taking under-valued media and using new hardware to unlock its value) and its first monster startup (going from a regional entity of 100 employees to a $1bn plus valuation in a decade).
It also seemed to understand that despite its success, it could not relax. “SKY is disruptive technology,” wrote Fellet in 2013. “It is in our DNA. We will continue to evaluate and perhaps initiate new business models that come along even if it runs the risk of cannibalising our own business.”
Strong and seductive words – and yet few outside the company believe it has lived up to them. From the loss of key sporting events to its thwarted attempt to merge with Vodafone, a sense of haplessness has lately settled around the business. It’s why Sky is one of the most fascinating and frustrating stories in New Zealand business: a stable and profitable entity, with a huge and loyal customer base that no one seems to believe is going to survive.
“There’s continuing uncertainty over the long-term prospects for Sky TV,” goes a typical investor’s verdict. “I think analysts have almost given up on them.”
Most damningly of all, some of its own employees have all but given up, too – sardonically referring to the “Skytanic”: a mighty vessel sailing a doomed course.
After years of seeming cursed, this year it has finally started fighting back. Which leaves the question: is it really is over for Sky TV – or has it concocted a plan to save itself?
I started work on this story several months ago. I’ve written about Sky for years, mostly very critically, and perceived John Fellet from a distance as a media dinosaur. As emblematic of a breed of business leader brilliant at leading during calm, knowable times, but singularly unsuited to the destabilising chaos of the internet era.
Then I met him, quite by chance. It was the night of the cricket awards, and The Spinoff’s editor Toby Manhire and I were half-drunk and hanging around afterwards, when The Crowd Goes Wild’s James McOnie introduced us to his ultimate boss – the CEO of Sky.
Unlike some business leaders, who mostly skew cautious, egomaniacal or aloof, Fellet was funny, open – even charming. He followed a little gang of us out into the night at downtown shoebox Moe’s, sipping Coke Zero while we drank bad martinis. It was a fun time, and he just shot the shit like a regular person. The kind who isn’t running one of New Zealand’s biggest and most beleaguered businesses.
The next day I was hungover and he had a strategy presentation to give to the strange breed of media who cover other media.
I arrived to Sky’s HQ, and was taken through its familiar squat rabbit warren in the light-industrial suburbia of Penrose. Sky’s premises are a physical manifestation of its predicament, a legacy TV business trying half-heartedly to convince you it’s a trendy tech company. There are vast, expensive television studios alongside yoga sessions and table tennis.
Eventually our group arrived at a utilitarian boardroom with a small plaque on its door reading The War Room. There, Fellet and his senior executive team told us a story about the future.
“Linear will disappear,” we heard early on. Which is not something mentioned much in the linear TV world.
They also said the new Sky would become even more like a platform. It has always sold other people’s products – the NRL, the Discovery channel. Now they’re talking about selling you Lightbox, a fully Spark-owned direct competitor, through your Sky hardware. This is almost as difficult to understand as their emphasis on “cluster analysis within a Bayesian belief network,” which apparently helps them understand their seven different types of potential audience.
This was the detail of Sky’s big, bold plan to save itself. And as it went on, I started to believe it.
“To me it was always trying to figure out adopting technology from around the world to bring it here and seeing if we could make a go of it,” says Fellet a few weeks later. He’s talking about where it all began, and is one of the few current employees entitled to do so.
He’s been there from the start, arriving in New Zealand as youngish man with a less-than-serious background: he was fired from an accounting firm for putting a goldfish in the watercooler as a prank. In 1991 he flew in from his native US to work on a business which was meant to be a quick doer upper, but became a life’s work. Even after retiring he’ll stay on; he’s a New Zealander now, though one with a baseball batting cage in his backyard.
Sky’s core product began with analog UHF and, despite perceptions, has hardly stood still: it has evolved into satellite UHF, then digital satellite, then a growing hard-drive. Lately it sits as a kind of hybrid of digital satellite with internet-supplied on demand functionality.
So while most of Sky’s 1000 plus employees know it as a corporate giant, Fellet remembers its time as a startup keenly – and thus seems genuinely unfazed by the scale of the challenge in front of the business today.
“I know our potential adversaries look very fearsome now – be it Amazon or Spark or Facebook – but when we only had a hundred employees things like TVNZ looked pretty threatening. So, for that matter, did Mediaworks.
“That kept me awake at night.”
Sky seemed a longshot from the start. It was founded by Craig Heatley, Terry Jarvis and Brian Green, who envisaged a basic concept: targeting sports in pubs and clubs, at the frothiest moment in our business history: 1987, just before an all-time great market crash. The idea survived it, morphing into a pay TV service, through the chaos of the fourth Labour government and a major recession.
Somehow it emerged to launch, with three channels and a very inauspicious movie: Space Camp – described by James Sanford of the Kalamazoo Gazette as “not exactly out of this world” – making its New Zealand premiere four years after it debuted in theatres.
The rest of its roster was not much better: some second tier sports, some movies, some news, all available only to residents of Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga. Yet Sky TV stuck, creating a market out of a thin air from minority sports fans and an emergent middle class. The big breakthrough came when it acquired the rights to rugby union just as the code became professional and suddenly needed money – making its fans suddenly need Sky.
After the grumbling about having to pay for something once free, most who subscribed adored Sky. This explosion of new content and choice was a huge novelty, coming a few short years after Lange’s Labour government ended the state’s tight grip on broadcast media.
Part of Sky’s success came from a brute force triumph of marketing. It blitzed the country with advertising, especially on TV itself – and this became a defining feature of its growth. The company successfully bedded in the idea that you were only seeing half the picture if you weren’t watching through the angular black box.
Eventually, it got to me. I had no right to be a customer, really. I was a postie in my early 20s (the biggest magazine for my 2002 Remuera run: Skywatch, $2 a copy), with a toddler at home. But that was part of why I had it – the internet barely existed, entertainment was comparatively expensive and Sky TV seemed like an almost rational purchase.
Now I’ve been a customer off and on for 15 years, though mostly a reluctant one. While Sky must have been a marvel when it arrived – epitomised by the motel signs proclaiming ‘It’s Here!’ – the service calcified into a much-derided monopolistic supplier of sports, movies and TV.
“Things change over time and the New Zealand consumers are demanding,” says Fellet of the transformation from plucky startup to hate brand. “Once you become a leader something changes – you go from being the challenger who’s bringing all the innovation to somebody who’s the establishment. With that comes scrutiny.”
Lately it started to seem like a bad relationship: phenomenally expensive (over a grand a year for channels I mostly never watched) and disappointing as a service (rain fade was bad; Sky Go was worse).
Slowly but surely I joined the growing crowd who both paid the bill every month and cheered its losses as a strange kind of consumer sport.
Over the past few years there was an increasing amount to cheer for. It lost Wimbledon to TV One, MotoGP to Sommet Sports and the EPL to Coliseum. Freeview launched, allowing a plethora of new channels. Its much-anticipated Igloo collaboration with TVNZ was a dismal failure. (Paradoxically, the best thing happened to Sky in recent times, at least in terms of customer sentiment, was another loss – that of the Commonwealth Games rights to TVNZ. Frequent and poorly-timed ad breaks and haphazard cutting between events led many to acknowledge the quality Sky brings to sport it televises.)
The internet was where a lot of the trouble arose: Lightbox launched (disclosure: Spark and Lightbox are clients of The Spinoff), followed by local appearances by huge silicon valley entities like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
They exposed the fact that, despite the way it was often characterised, Sky really wasn’t a monopoly at all. No content provider ever could be in the online era. But there is an irony to Sky’s failure to ever really create a strong internet product: no other company in New Zealand was as aware it was coming – and should thus have been as well-prepared.
Critics of Sky – of which there are legion – tend to focus on two specific issues when analysing the company’s failings: price and the internet. The narrative which can we woven around them is compelling – a flabby and expensive incumbent greedily grabbing profits while its business is slowly eroded from underneath it.
Yet Sky’s history with technology shows, if anything, the reverse. It was keenly aware of the internet’s potential from the 90s, and very willing to invest, launching multiple ventures and services to take advantage of it. It was also aware that price was a barrier, and many of its new products were designed to try and find a way to create a more accessible product, mostly using the internet as the chief distributor.
The problem, then, was not that it did not try. It was that it did not succeed.
As far back as 1997 it had a complementary service to its commercial installations of Sky TV, selling its GuestNet internet connections to hotels. By 2001 it was collaborating with Telecom to sell bundled pay TV and internet connections, and four years later started supplying sports clips to Telecom and Vodafone customers delivered to their mobiles.
In 2003 it founded a business named DVD Unlimited which allowed subscribers to borrow movies by mail as long as they liked, only returning them when they wanted different titles. But even then Fellet was aware the service had a limited lifespan: “as broadband networks become faster, cheaper and more highly penetrated in New Zealand, we believe that the DVD Unlimited business will be migrated to being a full online service,” he wrote in 2006, “with movies being downloaded or streamed to subscribers.”
The following year Netflix, then a DVD-by-mail business too, launched its first streaming site in the US. It was a marvel, but also a shambles: the content library was tiny, and users received an hour’s access a month for every dollar they spent on their postal plan.
Sky’s first serious attempt to commercialise internet-delivered content came in 2007, when it debuted a basic mobile package, available to Vodafone customers, for a tiny $2.50 per week. It quickly gathered 10,000 subscribers and was considered a point of emphasis in the company’s annual report. Tellingly, Fellet characterised Sky this way at the time: “We do not consider ourselves either a pay TV company or a satellite company, but rather a company which creates and aggregates content for consumers.”
In 2008 it pushed further with the debut of Sky Online, which allowed existing subscribers to pay an extra $5 per month to watch delayed coverage of sports. Movies and TV were planned too – but within a year it ended badly.
“[We] shut down our Sky Online service because of feedback we received from customers,” wrote Fellet in 2009. “Frankly, we entered the market a year or two too soon. Economics and technology will soon improve and we will be back.”
Its mobile TV product was still around, but teetering – its subscriber tally was shrinking. The following year’s annual report makes no mention of it at all, and it was never heard from again.
Some context: these experiments didn’t really matter. It was all a sideshow to MySky HDi, the company’s raging profit machine. It was an extraordinary product which allowed users to scroll forward in time, pick shows to record and pause live television, some of it in dazzling high definition. About the same time plasma and then LCD TVs replaced boxy and expensive CRTs, which began their steady march down in price.
Sky thrived, its subscriber numbers growing from 667,000 in 2006 to 829,000 in 2011, while increasing the price they paid and their loyalty. It was a golden era, with turnover rising from $548m to $797m, while profits doubled to $120m.
Around the same time iSky was launched, and its internet ventures became a lot less cute.
Prior to 2011, Sky’s halting internet ventures were eminently forgivable. It was the era of experimentation, when multiple models were jousting for supremacy and no one could say with any certainty what the future would look like. Next to ESPN: the phone – “the dumbest fucking idea I have ever heard”, Steve Jobs apparently called it – Sky’s cheap mobile package looked like a reasonable bet.
Fellet wasn’t shy about acknowledging Sky’s past online failings either. “It was a terrible experience for consumers,” he wrote of Sky Online at the time. “It was clunky, it was slow and one All Blacks rugby game could chew through the data caps of most households.”
After 2011, though, the tech started to catch up. The iPhone had been around a while, and its design and functionality had become much imitated. Netflix-style sorting of content, with rows of uncluttered icons, was becoming relatively standard for television and movies. For his part, Fellet says he was absolutely paying attention to the streaming pioneer. “I was an early believer. Within a year of it going public I was a shareholder of [Netflix] – and I’m still a proud shareholder.”
More pertinently to rugby – then as now Sky’s biggest content asset – the major US sports coalesced around platform provider Neulion from 2010 onwards, for a combination of live-streaming and catch-up viewing.
The mystery of distributing and selling video content online was being solved. You picked a reliable technology provider, designed a consumer-friendly interface and dialed up a network of nationwide servers to handle the data load. Then you had yourself a workable online product.
That was precisely what New Zealand startup Coliseum (disclosure: Coliseum are a custom client of The Spinoff) did in 2013, when they audaciously outbid Sky for the rights to the English Premier League football. While the service was imperfect, and ultimately ended in an exit from the New Zealand market, the business lives on as Rugby Pass, selling a similar product which provides access to almost all oval ball sports throughout Asia.
Fellet remembers the day it lost the EPL well, and still resents the market pounding Sky took. “It was tough because it’s one of those great iconic events and we got outbid for it,” he says. “The day we had to announce that we lost EPL I think the stock lost 20 percent.
“What the market didn’t know was that EPL represented less than one percent of our viewing on the platform.”
The sport remains a contentious one for Sky: after news broke recently that Spark had outbid Sky for the EPL rights, Fellet emailed me to clarify the precise figure. “In case it comes up, the EPL represents 0.3% of the viewing on the Sky platform,” he wrote in an email. “This is even after taking all the free-to-air channels out.” By comparison he told me that the NBA – on the face of it a less culturally significant sport – is over 2%.
While the outward message of the loss of the EPL was that Sky – for so long the largest cheque in the room for any sports or entertainment rights – was suddenly vulnerable, there was a second one nestled within. Namely that despite the screaming of some fans, there was now an audience for online sports delivery. And that, where copper wire internet speeds allowed (fibre was still relatively rare at the time), it could deliver a strong product.
The combination of slick new competitors and a persistently terrible Sky online experience led many to a specific conclusion about Fellet and Sky. “I think the market interpreted my fear … as some sort of indictment that ‘John Fellet doesn’t get the internet’,” he says. “I get it. If I could drop off all my subscribers tomorrow and go to the kind of SVOD model like [Sky’s version of Netflix] Neon I would jump at the chance.
“I’d just leave way too many subscribers behind and why not do both?”
Only, Sky didn’t really do both in any meaningful way. This period – 2011 through 2016 – was Sky’s great missed opportunity. More than that, it was the moment its technology became an object of fury and black humour.
First iSky and then Sky Go became products synonymous with untimely public failure. A friend reminisced recently about the time it froze during the last swing of Grant Elliott’s bat in the 2014 cricket world cup semi-final. Worse was the historic 2015 All Blacks test in Samoa, which played out during work hours. Despite demand being easily anticipated, the system collapsed under the load.
The fans were not the only ones unhappy.
Some time during this period – studded with huge profits and increasingly furious customers – Fellet and Vodafone CEO Russell Stanners started a plot to take a long-running collaborative selling relationship to the next level, and along the way end Sky’s reputation for bad technology at the wrong price.
The merger – or, perhaps, a takeover dressed up as a merger – was one that would create a combination of telco and TV powerhouse. Vodafone’s tech plugged in to Sky’s content and on-sold to the vast customer pool of the combined entity.
“[Fellet] knew back in 2015 that his company needed to reinvent itself and become more of a digital business,” says Stanners. “It needed to come together and merge with an organisation like Vodafone.”
The merger would solve Sky’s woeful record on the internet in one masterstroke – and Stanners’ place at the head of the combined entity took care of the always vexed issue of succession planning at Sky.
The market was overjoyed, with Sky’s shares surging 18%. The plan made all of Sky’s online issues appear temporary, and had analysts struggling to wrap their heads around what it might all mean. Spark, the biggest competitor to both parties, was rightly terrified of what this vertically-integrated powerhouse could do – its own forays into content, Lightbox and Lightbox Sports, were promising but still-nascent – certainly not ready to take on Sky and Vodafone together.
All that remained was for the Commerce Commission to sign off on the deal, which seemed a formality given each party was subject to multiple local and international competitors – and consumers were only likely to gain from the efficiencies of scale the merged entity could boast.
“Everyone, our advisors, commentators in the industry, our competitors – everyone thought it was happening,” says Vodafone CEO Russell Stanners, on the phone from the company’s new Christchurch offices. The creaky Commerce Commission, fresh from signalling it would reject the NZME-Stuff union, had other plans. “I recall at 7:43am on February the 23rd I got a text to say they said ‘no’.
“Our first reaction as a team was ‘we need a plan B’.”
Not as much as Sky did. Fellet and his team were even more invested in it going through. “The last two years we’ve been pretty much planning a life where we were kind of a wingman of Vodafone,” says Fellet. Stanners backs him up on that point: “a lot of the things they’re being criticised for today – not keeping up with technology and not having flexible pricing – the merger with Vodafone was a strategic path to do that.”
With that path blocked, Sky needed to find a new one. And earlier this year it finally emerged.
In a series of coordinated public disclosures, Sky laid out what appears a quantum shift: pure-play online options; an Apple TV-style “puck” which would make internet delivery as easy as MySky for less tech-savvy generations; apps across all devices and smart TVs. Most tellingly of all, Sky wasn’t just going to get more accessible – it was going to get cheaper.
Its basic service was divided up into tiers which allowed sports to be accessed from as little as $55 a month (versus more like $80 prior). The new online products would start at around $10. And they would be much more unbundled – meaning you could buy just what you want, rather than the whole expensive package. And they were rebuilding and redesigning the whole foundation of their digital assets, to make it actual work when you needed it to.
At the same time, news also emerged that Sky’s second-most treasured asset – after the rugby – was not just staying put, but locked even tighter. Its HBO deal had been renewed for another five years, and expanded to allow access to its complete back catalogue across all platforms. With respect to Netflix’s growing content arsenal, HBO remains easily the biggest name in premium TV, with Game of Thrones a kind of dramatic All Blacks.
The announcements were the biggest news Sky had released since the merger. It could be read as a capitulation to what the public – and tech commentators in particular – had been saying for years: make it reliable, easy to use and cheaper.
It could also be read as a strategic triumph: a beleaguered business picking itself up off the floor after the commerce commission decision, and figuring out a way forward.
Fellet watched expectantly to see what the market thought. After years of punishing them, to his mind excessively, for every negative data point, perhaps this one would turn things around.
It wasn’t to be. Each announcement was ignored by the market. “I think the HBO is the gold standard for premium drama,” says Fellet. “Locking up that for another five years across all devices … means nothing. Doesn’t move the stock at all.”
Maybe that’s because the market views it as too little too late. And sees the clouds gathering again. Because despite Sky retaining New Zealand rugby rights, Spark has snapped up the Rugby World Cups and reportedly also acquired the EPL, with rumours swirling that Formula One will soon follow. Fellet says he can’t do much about his rival’s aggressive moves into content. “They’ve got a far bigger balance sheet than I do. They can they outbid me anytime they want. The question is: can they make money off of that long term?”
But then, he would say that.
Analysts, the market, and the public all seem to be counting Sky out. Its shares languish at near-historic lows, and no one in their right mind seems to think that it can survive the competition from Spark and Netflix, or Facebook and Amazon – or New Zealand Rugby itself, if it decides to take the All Blacks direct to market.
But Fellet and Sky have been in a corner before. It has had big deals go south, like its plan to buy the ISP iHug in 1999. Sky’s friends have turned into vicious adversaries in Telecom/Spark. It has faced down huge international competitors, like when ESPN started expanding globally. And it has had major investors like Rupert Murdoch signal the nature of their faith with an orderly exit.
The business has always rolled on through. Sky has weapons which appear discounted by the market, including its extraordinarily reliable cashflow, and a matchless set of customer behaviour data, which Fellet calls “probably the greatest asset I have”. Perhaps as powerful is the marketing muscle it uses to buy subscribers, and the vast pool of current customers. For a decade it has been selling an increasingly maligned product, and making hundreds of millions in annual profits – imagine if it once again had something which worked that people were excited to buy?
Still, it’s never had a problem like the internet. Sky is now fighting companies with no need to make much money. Sky leases its content rather than owning it, and each new generation of consumers seems harder to decipher and thus sell to than the last.
It’s little wonder that Fellet is retiring rather than keep fighting these elusive moving targets.
Yet the company has huge strengths which are currently being ignored, and its new plan appears to fix every standing criticism of its products. Whether they’ll actual work or not, we’ll only really know when they start rolling out in a year’s time – but the technical challenges are easier than ever in this era. Content rights remain the big question mark – but there are promising signs there too, with Amazon and Facebook appearing to retreat from sports in recent auctions.
Some big New Zealand companies wilt when international competition arrives: think Deka or Georgie Pie. Others which you might expect to be overrun instead thrive, like TradeMe. We still don’t know which fate awaits Sky.
But we do know this: in the middle of the afternoon of April 3 2018, Sky made another announcement: John Fellet had bought 10,000 more of its shares.
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