Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 146 - 159)




  146. Lady and gentlemen, I should like to welcome you very much here today. I understand, Mr Ball that you would like to make a brief introductory statement.

  (Mr Ball) Indeed. Thank you for inviting us here today. We have heard a lot about the problems of digital television this morning and I should like to focus on some of its successes. First, take-up. Over 35 per cent of homes in the UK have now taken up digital television and that is more than any other country in Europe. According to the ITC, consumers have gone to digital more quickly than they took to colour television, the video and indeed the PC. I am very proud of Sky's role in facilitating that. Second, services. Digital television has given consumers more choice, particularly in quality niche channels such as Discovery, Artsworld or The History Channel. It has also made interactivity a reality with things like e-mail, games, banking and soon to be launched government services, all available on the digital platform. More television has not meant less quality television as many people predicted. The explosion in the hours of television on our screens means that some people can always point at bad programmes, but many of your constituents benefit from a huge increase in good programming since satellite broke what was really the television cartel here ten years ago. As an industry we need to build on this success, working to increase choice, embrace quality and improve services. Finally, what is the Government's role in all of this or what should it be? We should like to see them repeal much of the legislation which holds our industry back. Viewers choices are no longer limited by spectrum scarcity as they were. The need for such tight regulation is falling away. Competition law and the notion of consumer detriment should really be the guiding principle in how this market is liberated. I should like now to turn over to questions and we look forward to hearing what you have to ask.

Alan Keen

  147. The broader questions will come later. I always praise Sky, particularly for the production of football on television and the breadth of the provision and the technical ability and analysis which helps educate the football public and sometimes the football public need educating. You have done a great job there. Because of the heavy investment you have made in the production of football, both acquiring the rights and the delivery systems, you have reached a situation of a fair amount of dominance. Obviously it is the aim of Government to encourage investment and enterprise and people who do that have to be rewarded, but when you reach a position of dominance, how do you think regulators should ensure that competition continues rather than is brought to an end because of the real success somebody like Sky has had in that particular field?
  (Mr Ball) With our platform. That is addressed by virtue of the fact that our platform is an open platform, that anybody has access to our platform unlike any other platform in Britain, whether it be cable or indeed the DTT platform. If a channel wants to launch and they cannot come to an arrangement where we retail that channel on the platform, they have access to Sky's infrastructure on a rate card which is regulated by OFTEL. I think that addresses the competition issue you referred to.

  148. One point I was making was that because of the heavy investment you have made, not just in the advertising but having a delivery system, a platform, you obviously have that control.
  (Mr Ball) That is the point. We do not have that control. A cable company, absolutely right, has that control. ITV Digital has that control. I do not have that control. If somebody wants to come up on Sky, they are perfectly entitled to come up on Sky on a rate card on fair and reasonable terms as regulated by OFTEL. So that is a non-issue.

  149. How does OFTEL regulate that on pricing?
  (Mr Ball) We publish a rate card, they take a view on the investment Sky has made to create the digital infrastructure. There is a myth here. Britain did not wake up one morning and there was a digital satellite infrastructure in place. We built it. We spent over £2 billion building it. We continue to invest in it by subsidising boxes. For that we get a consideration which is the rate card. More than 180 different agreements on the Sky digital platform are regulated by OFTEL. Only one has complained and I am sure you can all guess which one that is.

  150. I have been praising you for that initiative and investment. It is just worrying. In this case I am talking very narrowly and worried about the future of football. I am also worried about the future of competition in this field. Do you not think there is a need to change? I am not saying there is, I am merely asking for your expertise, I am asking whether you need help.
  (Mr Ball) I am not quite sure I follow your worry about football. Firstly, Sky as a company over the last ten years or so has put massive investment in football which everyone has benefited from at all levels, not just Sky and the football players. There is competition for rights in football. You saw the last round of rights for the Premier League and FA and so forth. Plenty of people were bidding for those rights and football clubs or authorities have done very well out of that. I am not quite sure where you are going with your concern about competition, but there is competition at channel level, at platform level, for football product.

  151. I am concerned that it is an all-or-nothing situation in that to compete with Sky people have to bid very high and it is difficult to see how in the end they can compete and I am concerned about that. I have no problems with Sky. I treat Sky as one of my best friends, but we have reached a position where certainly other people are complaining about it and the regulator will have to have some concern about that and this is where I am asking for your help.
  (Mr Ball) To follow and continue your argument, if you are saying that there should be regulation which would get rights costs down, you would find myself and my colleagues in the industry would look forward to that. It is unlikely. You have seen over the last couple of years that we have not always been able to win the bidding for rights, whether it be football or sports or other rights. We have seen BBC, we have seen Channel 4, we have seen ITV with some of their football purchases, pay pretty big sums to acquire product which has not necessarily gone to Sky. So the premise that it is always going to go to Sky is wrong and the content providers have access to Sky's customer base in the way I described earlier because it is an open platform with which they can directly access, as some choose to do, those customers without going through Sky. I think that the way the competitive landscape is at the moment as far as rights acquisition is concerned is pretty fair.

Derek Wyatt

  152. What is your position on OFCOM with respect to the Competition Commissioner and the OFT? In other words, if OFCOM says eventually X, would the broadcast business then say they do not quite like that so they will go across to the other Act? Do you think that by creating OFCOM we have to incorporate the law within OFCOM and close down the other two? I am just asking. In America, as you know, it is one regulator. I am just wondering whether we have got it right in the way in which we are thinking about how OFCOM will develop?
  (Mr Ball) You are right that in America it is just the FCC. I am not a lawyer but you have the Department of Justice there as well and if you are very unhappy with an FCC decision they get involved in some of the bigger media matters so there are two there as well. Having fewer places for different views on what the rule is, is good. We welcome OFCOM in the sense that there will be fewer regulators regulating our business. On the competition issue, as I understand it, OFCOM will have a mandate to promote competition, which is similar to what OFTEL has. OFTEL had that so BT could be held back to allow others to come into the market. OFCOM having that is a worry because promoting competition generally means distorting the market so inefficient bodies can succeed. I would prefer OFCOM not to be involved in that area and have that covered by the OFT.
  (Ms Cassells) There is a genuine concern about how OFCOM uses its promoting competition duties which stem from the European Framework Directive and at the same time applies its concurrent competition powers under the Competition Act. Our preference would be for OFCOM to use the competition powers rather than the specific sector rules. On the first part of your question, we support the idea that there is a right of appeal. If there is a right of appeal to the Competition Commission, if we feel that justice has not been done within OFCOM, then we will pursue that and that is quite right.

  153. As we move apparently to this broadband world, and if I understand it that is Internet access 24 hours a day, permanently switched on everywhere you go, what does that mean to you as a business if you are a satellite company? Does that mean you migrate to that area? What does it mean?
  (Mr Ball) We are not just a satellite company, we are a company which exists to generate value for our shareholders, so our business model will go where we can do that.

  154. It does not disturb you too much that there might be an alternative delivery mechanism.
  (Mr Ball) No.

  155. Would you prefer that delivery mechanism? Do you think it would be more beneficial to you because you only have 37 per cent take-up and you could get 100 per cent take-up if broadband were available, which we know it will not be to 100 per cent?
  (Mr Ball) As I am sure you know better than I, there are a number of ways of providing broadband including by satellite. We will take our business where the most efficient delivery system for our content is available. At the moment there are many castles in the air about what broadband is and what it will deliver.

  156. There has been some discussion about an alternative box, a digital terrestrial box, which may or may not be funded jointly by the BBC and ITV companies and other companies. How do you react to that?
  (Mr Ball) The information is somewhat sketchy. It seems that this box will enable people to get more television channels and that is it. I do not think it is going to enable them to do much else. We hear a lot about the benefits of digital television, I mentioned some of them earlier. This planned free-to-air box will not do much more than provide more TV channels, a bit like when the country went from VHF to UHF and enabled more channels to be available, BBC2 and latterly 4 and 5. Is this box going to have a modem in it? Is this box going to have access to on-line type services, interactivity and so forth? I doubt it at that price. It is just a way of getting more television. Yes, we have to find a way of getting more television because we agreed a year or so ago for the BBC to have more money to create more television, so it is a circular route.

  157. The question I asked earlier was whether we want a smart economy. We did lead the world five years ago and we now languish in the third division—the OECD figure is 31 in the world in digital. We have had a specular success over the last five years. If you want to change that perspective, you would need to put interactivity and Internet into a digital platform box. What would be your reaction if the Government said, "Hold on. We have unspent £11 billion of the 3G mobile phone money, we could sponsor that box, we could enable that box"? What would be your reaction?
  (Mr Ball) If that is considered a good use of public funds—and firstly we have to decide the simple cost/benefit analysis on what that is going to bring—as long as it is platform neutral, maybe a voucher system or whatever to help the cost of people taking up such services—platform neutral across cable, DTT and satellite, we would approve that; we would be in favour of it.

  158. If I understand correctly, it would only allow certain free-to-air Sky channels, it would not allow Sky Sport, so that would impact, or would it not impact? If the penetration were 80 per cent on this digital box, that is high?
  (Mr Ball) We are talking about a box which just provides a dozen free-to-air channels. The pay proposition, premium services, would still be available on DTT, unless the DTT model changes, as they are available on cable and satellite.

  159. Mr Keen mentioned football. What is the fuss between ITV2 and yourselves? Why is football league not on Sky? They blame you, you blame them. What is the truth?
  (Mr Ball) The football league is not on Sky because most of the content is within ITV Sport and we do not have a deal with ITV Sport. Curiously we did have a deal with ITV Sport a few weeks ago and then they changed their mind at the last moment. I was told by a senior member of one of the shareholders of ITV that they did that because they considered at the last moment that it would be detrimental to ITV Digital with the Champions League starting and so on. It is in their court. It suits them not to have it on Sky at the moment and to lobby very hard. Just for the record, the initial ask from ITV Sport for us to retail that service was about the same as they are paying for the football league rights, £80 million or so, which was absolute nonsense.

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