Julian Clover goes on the trail of the subscriber numbers buried in company reports.
There is at this time of year something of a game of cat and mouse between journalists and the investor relations divisions of the companies we write about. The object of the exercise, at least from my point of view, is to get as much relevant information as possible about a chosen topic. In this case the subscriber numbers that have been squirreled away in the quarterly reports of Europe’s telecoms companies.
A general rule of thumb is when a particular product or service is doing well then a company will shout the figures from the rooftops. If you’re really lucky there may even be a party. When it’s not so good the information is buried in the back of the accounts, which like the sports pages journalists are encouraged to read first, because the information found there is largely a legal requirement.
Last Friday I had a phone message and then an email from a well-known European IPTV platform. It was of course the day when BT decided it would give me five minutes notice of the removal of both the telegraph pole outside the office and the accompanying phone service.
It seems that I had published the wrong subscriber figure, foolishly multiplying the new percentage increase by the number given in the 2007 annual report, and coming up with an answer some 70,000 less than the 200,000 plus the company now said was its subscriber base. Needless to say as far as I could the figure did not appear in the investor report, and for many people there was no need, as they were happy with the 1.5 million or so ADSL subscriber total the company gave.
Here lies the problem; most companies have so many product lines that it is totally unreasonable to expect them all to be listed. It just so happens that it is the IPTV operators who share this particular problem, particularly those with smaller subscriber numbers.
BT, which has been accused of not growing fast enough, has 398,000 homes to be proud of. From a standing start amid heavy competition it has grown the market, and the numbers are plain to see, from all directions.
In the case of Deutsche Telekom it is necessary to look through several localised company reports to get the number in each of its IPTV markets. For other companies figures are available on Excel spreadsheets or packaged in amongst legacy analogue networks or acquired cablenets.
When Sky CFO Andrew Griffith says that the number of Sky Sports subscribers is “not a metric I follow” you tend to believe him. It is not after all short of numbers to look at, all of them going in an upwards direction, but for those whose occupation was previously the telephone business a little more transparency is required.