We’re about to enter a lengthy period of consultation and the potential for some fascinating submissions as Ofcom launches its inquiry into the UK pay-TV market. Julian Clover reports
You could sense that something might be about to happen. Over the past few weeks a well of anti-Sky feeling has gradually been filling up. Not just the recent dispute between Sky and Virgin Media over the carriage of basic channels, but also the negotiations surrounding Flextech’s own channels within the Sky DTH packages, plans by Sky to switch its Freeview DTT channels to a pay-TV package, and of course the acquisition of a 17.9% stake in ITV from under the noses of the then NTL.
Ofcom’s announcement of an investigation into the UK pay-TV market has been widely interpreted as an investigation into Sky. It may well turn out to be just that, the complaints received by the regulator came from BT, Setanta Sports, Top Up TV, and Virgin Media, all with an axe to grind against Sky and a business to run. Sky has never gone out of the way to make friends, but its actions in recent weeks could equally be interpreted as preparing itself for digital switchover, just as those who have voiced their concerns to Ofcom are doing exactly the same.
It is standard practice for pay-TV platforms to try and acquire content that is exclusive to them. Sky is obliged to provide its pay movies and sports channels to all comers, but somehow the accompanying interactive services and side channels manage to slip through the net. For its part Virgin Media’s sponsorship of the next series of Big Brother must surely have some exclusive content for cable customers somewhere along the line.
One of my long held theories is that Sky has ostensibly run out of potential football fans and movie buffs, so it makes sense to shift the emphasis to basic channels like Sky One, and we all know that Virgin is protesting a little too much about their loss.
Sky argues that Virgin is a closed network, and to a certain extent this is true, though until analogue is finally switched off there will always be a limited amount of capacity available. Subject to an approved ratecard, Sky must let any channel that asks onto its platform, though any broadcaster with a carriage fee would probably have had their contract signed with a quill pen. The same is not true in continental Europe, where although you can get onto the platform, the broadcasters will not necessarily allocate you a number in the EPG. Astra’s much-criticised Entavio platform is looking to address this issue.
Then there have been the calls to have Sky thrown out of Freeview – one school of though says that Sky never expected Freeview to be a success – but with the growth of integrated digital TVs it would have always had an impact of sorts. As it stands almost nine million homes have Freeview, my theory has always been that Sky would shift Sky One to DTT and create a sixth major network, but instead it has chosen the pay-TV route.
The decisions that await Ofcom cannot surely be a mandate to sort Sky out. If the regulator comes down hard on the broadcaster it will have to be tempered with an even handedness towards other platforms.