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Discovery and Sky Do a Deal

[A follow-up/continuation of the piece I wrote the other day about the fallout between Sky and Discovery in the UK and Germany.]

On Sunday morning there was an epic final at the Australian Open. Somehow the top 8 men’s players in the world conspired not to make the final, and we got a “throwback” final of Rafa Nadal (9) v Roger Federer (17). The last time these two played in a final together was 6 years ago in Roland Garros.

The match duly ran into a tense and exciting fifth set, with Federer coming out the winner after some amazing points played at the highest level. The match was broadcast on Eurosport (a channel owned by Discovery), and no sooner had the final point been scored, than the Eurosport commentator was reminding viewers, via a prepared script, that in the next few days Sky viewers would no longer be able to watch this channel and others in the Discovery portfolio, and that viewers should either phone Sky or contact them on social media.

As it happens, viewers can now breathe a sigh of relief. Late on Tuesday, a deal between the two companies was agreed, and the channels did not go off air at midnight last night.

Quite who “won” isn’t too clear with reports that both sides claiming victories of sorts.

Set against this was the background of Fox trying to take full ownership of Sky at the moment – something that Ray Snoddy notes in his piece about the affair.

The dispute broke into the open last week, with Discovery setting up a specific site (which some Sky broadband customers reported to have had trouble accessing), and Sky hitting back with pages on its own site suggesting alternative programming that Sky provides.

Over the weekend and for the last few days, there was also a blitz of press advertising from Discovery and Sky, presenting their cases with various levels of implied aggression.

In the UK, we’ve not really experienced a lot like this. Perhaps the biggest channel carriage fallout was between Sky and Virgin Media, which saw some Sky channels, including Sky One, removed from the platform.

Of course, Sky continues to limit access to its Sky Atlantic channel, meaning that its not viewable on Virgin Media, BT TV or TalkTalk TV.

The availability of Sky Sports channels was also messy for a while. Ofcom used to force Sky to provide Sky Sports 1 and 2 on a “wholesale must-offer” basis. That meant that any provider could offer Sky’s channels at a fixed rate (a rate that might be lower than Sky was selling the channels itself). That stipulation was removed in 2015, but it’s notable that on BT TV, only Sky Sports 1 and 2 are available. Whereas Sky Sports 1-5, Sky Sports News HQ and Sky Sports F1 are all on TalkTalk TV. While football, cricket and rugby tend to be on SS1 or SS2, other events might easily float over to other channels – particularly at busy times over the weekend. More recently Sky has launched Sky Sports Mix, which is Sky exclusive although it rarely shows fixtures that aren’t on other Sky Sports channels.

But returning to the now resolved Discovery/Sky dispute, were there really any other options for either side?

When you enter the world of multi-channel paid-for TV, you enter the world of bundles. You don’t agree to take Sky or Virgin Media, and then carefully list the channels you’d be interested in subscribing to. Instead you’re presented with various bundles with different channel line-ups. Premium movies or sports channels are then offered on-top of this.

For example Sky currently retails the Sky Variety bundle for £32 a month (prices and bundles vary the whole time, but we’ll go with this value). They say that includes 373 channel (11 being HD channels), of which 250+ are free-to-air. In other words, you’d get those 250 channels anyway with a basic satellite decoder regardless of having a Sky subscription.

So there are somewhere around 100+ premium channels some of which you’re probably interested in, and they are all getting a proportion of that £32 a month. Sky obviously keeps a cut itself for running the service and its own channels. Beyond that are channel providers that do deals with Sky for some of their offerings. UKTV, for example, will offer channels like Alibi and Gold (neither of which are on Freeview) for a set price a month; ITV has ITV Encore; Viacom has a range of channels including the MTV family and so on.

One channel provider might offer both free-to-air channels and pay channels. UKTV offers Dave free, but Alibi on a paid basis. Discovery itself offers free-to-air Quest, mostly repeats of shows that have previously aired on their main channels. You probably do get bigger ratings for making a channel free, but you have to fight for advertising revenue to make it pay. It’s a fine balance. Subscription revenue is more certain, and if you do a good deal with the likes of Sky or Virgin Media, then the channel ticks over financially on its own.

When you go free-to-air, each channel you make free has to survive on its own accord. While you might try to force advertisers to not be able to buy Dave on its own, but also have to advertise on, say, Drama and Really, it’s a slightly tougher sell. The advertiser might only be after the young male audience that Dave provides.

But when you go down the paid-for route, it certainly makes sense to bundle your channels up. Discovery bundles the various Discovery channels (+1, DMAX, Shed, Turbo, History, Science), along with TLC (and its sister channels), Eurosport 1 and 2, and Animal Planet. Some of these get decent ratings, and have real investment in them (Discovery, TLC, Eurosport); others tick by largely on repeats (Shed, Turbo).

The platform operator has to decide the right mix of channels for the right price. How much of that £32 a month should go to Discovery for its bundle of channels? The operator will consider the importance of the channel (Is a must-offer channel that might mean its subscribers cancel and go elsewhere?), its ratings, investment in the channel (Are they making desirable new programmes and promoting them, helping make the platform better?), and the overall value to consumers. They also have to think about their bottom line.

The channel provider will naturally think their offering is more valuable than the platform does, but they usually hammer out a deal between themselves. Remember, there’s only £32 in total to go around, and that has to pay for some other overall costs as well.

And that’s what this battle has been about. It hasn’t been reported what Sky is paying for Discovery’s channel offering, but I’d guess that it could be anything from 50p to £2 a month per subscriber. To put this in context, in the US, the channel group with the highest monthly subscription fees is ESPN with a reported $7.21 a month of cable bills going to this channel. Unlike the UK, where premium sport is only paid for by those who choose to buy it, ESPN gets less per subscriber, but vastly more subscribers pay it by virtue of the channel being a “must-carry” on nearly all cable households.

During the hurly burly of the Sky/Discovery disagreement, there were a few suggestions made by Sky about how Discovery might monetise its channels:

  • Send channels free-to-air and rely solely on advertising revenues
  • Retail the channels itself via the Sky platform
  • Transform the business into an OTT offering

None of those works easily.

Free-to-air Ad Funded

All these channels already take advertising. Indeed, Sky’s own advertising division, Sky Media, sells Discovery’s advertising. Remarkably, while channel carriage discussions were breaking down last autumn, Sky Media, the advertising side of the businesses actually renewed a long term agreement with Discovery Networks.

But it’s likely that advertising only accounts for perhaps 50% of the channels’ revenues. While going free-to-air would mean that channels would be available in more households, Freesat homes and perhaps expansion onto Freeview, it’s not at all clear that the additional advertising revenues this availability would bring, would make up for the subscription shortfall. In turn that might see less investment in Discovery’s channels, with some of the smaller channels almost certainly needing to be closed down.

It should be said, however, that UKTV has grown its business very successfully by taking channels free-to-air. Dave, Really, Drama, Yesterday and Home have driven their business by being or going free-to-air.

Retail the channels itself

Think of this as the BT Sport solution. Market the channels directly to consumers, taking the revenues without Sky acting as an intermediary.

BT went down this route because they wanted a direct relationship with their customers. But they were in a uniquely strong position in the first place. Their original play was aimed at retaining BT customers who might have moved their phonelines and broadband to Sky or other providers, and so they were starting from a massive customer base. Then they offered an initially free BT Sport service. Stay with us or move to us, and get the channel free. They already had a large billing facility to manage the service. Customers could relatively easily add BT Sport to their channel mix, either on BT’s own platform, or via Sky. And they can market the channel easily – bombarding BT customers with email and direct mail explaining the offer.

The other thing BT had was killer programming. And I don’t mean Shark Week. They had Premier League football, and some decent games at that. Retailing the channel themselves has worked well for them.

But few others try this. There are a handful of specialist sports channels that manage this – Premier Sports and BoxNation spring to mind. But again, they are able to target a specific interest group directly. You want to watch lots of boxing? Subscribe to BoxNation (Although notably even BoxNation has now done a deal with BT).

For Discovery, this is much harder. They’d need to develop a whole new subscription team, and market the channels heavily. While Eurosport could probably reach cycling and tennis fans relatively successfully, the more general interest nature of Discovery is a much harder sell.

In short, this would be an expensive gamble, persuading viewers that they should phone-up Discovery and spend an additional £2.99 a month or whatever to subscribe to their channels.

The OTT Offering

The other route is to sell directly as a streaming service. Offer the linear channels, but also boxsets of programmes, making them available through various digital platforms. In essence Discovery already does this with the Eurosport Player.

If you don’t have a premium TV subscription, then you can pay monthly or annually for access via the Eurosport website or app. Remember, something like 40% of UK television households are Freeview only. So there’s definitely a market to be tapped if the price is right.

Again, that works for sport better than a general entertainment channel.

Summary

Only those in the room will know what really happened, but I would argue that Discovery was between a rock and a hard place. It would have been colossally disruptive to lose its main channel distributor in Sky.

On the other hand, Sky is definitely looking to reduce costs, since it simply can’t place the full 83% increase in Premier League rights fees it’s now paying solely on Sky Sports subscribers. Other parts of the business have to take part of that cost. And this is before we consider the upcoming next round of UEFA Champions’ League rights which if Sky tries to win back, will place an added cost burden on Sky.

Being seen as a “bully” probably also isn’t a good place to be right now for Sky as it seeks regulatory approval for its takeover.

That all said, it’s not clear that bundles are here to stay forever. There seems to be a movement – especially in the US, for “skinny bundles” – a lower subscription featuring a handful of core channels, and then buying “a la carte” services on top. There are “cable-cutters” and “cable-nevers” – those who cancel cable subscriptions, and those who never took one in the first place (especially millennials). They just want to buy HBO for Game of Thrones or whatever.

It’s all certainly a concern for ESPN who can no longer bank on all 100m+ US cable households each paying $7.21 a month for their channels. And if you’re not interested in sport why should you?

Yet buying each channel/subscription separately quickly mounts up. A US subscriber in an OTT world might buy Direct TV Now for a basic selection of streaming channels starting at $35 a month. They might also pay for Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. They add HBO Go for a few more dollars. And then beyond that there are things like CBS All Access if you want the upcoming new Good Wife and Star Trek spin-offs/series. You might expect similar offerings from NBC or ABC in the future. There’s also the forthcoming BBC/ITV BritBox. And only this week we hear that Walter Presents will also be available to US subscribers.

$2.99 here; $5.99 there. That’s a lot of TV that all adds up very quickly.

One way or another, resolution of the Sky/Discovery dispute means that Sky viewers are able to continue to watch Idris Elba: No Limits on Discovery. Which is as well, because Elba is also the marketing face of Sky, and it would have been kind of awkward when he’s plugging the new Sky Q box, that his series wasn’t available to Sky viewers.

Personally, I’m left having splashed out £20 for Eurosport Player before I learnt of the dispute’s resolution. As it turns out, this wasn’t really necessary. That said, that app gives me a number of additional streams that mean I can often watch sports action live, when TV will only be showing highlights later on. So perhaps it’s a fair investment.

A Curious Case of Google Play Music

Screenshot 2015-09-06 at 11.51.39

Note: See multiple updates on this story at the end.

I use Google Play Music as my primary music service. That is, Google Play Music hosts my audio files allowing me to play them back via my phone, the Chrome browser or a Chromecast. I’ve never felt the need to subscribe to a music service because I own an awful lot of music – around 20,000 tracks you may recall. If I subscribed, I’d end up playing a lot of that music anyway. And in any case, I like to know with certainty that the music I want to listen is available to me and hasn’t been removed at the whim of an artist or because a record label’s agreement had lapsed with my service provider.

(For what it’s worth, I keep a local duplicate library in iTunes.)

A little while ago when Google launched its subscription service – charging the same £9.99 a month that Spotify and everyone else does – I got a free trial of their full service. I used it a little to experiment with – going beyond my own library and being able to play anything I wanted. In general I wasn’t that bothered with it. However the most interesting part was their integration of Songza into the app.

If you’re a full subscriber, you’ll get suggested playlists dependent of the time of day, day of week and so on. So first thing in the morning it might be upbeat music, music to exercise with or to commute to. Then during the work day it may offer you tracks to get you through that, or do to chores to. By the end of the night it could be offering songs to go to sleep to, or music to play at your house party. You get the picture.

It’s pretty intuitive, and there are usually two or three sub-menus to get to some music that suits you. It was kind of fun, but not enough on its own to make me want to pay a subscription.

Then last weekend my Google Play Music account changed. I logged in and up popped those options for radio stations. It seemed as though I was able to access the service that launched in June in the US. This is a free version of the service that offers limited skips and supposedly serves visual ads. You can’t see upcoming tracks, but it was clear that the service was making good use of my own healthy library (like Spotify, Google doesn’t have to pay rights if I already own the track).

The same service was replicated on my mobile phone. I was quite excited about it, and spent a couple of mornings listening to the service. It seemed pretty decent.

And then it was gone.

My phone was displaying a repeated “Connection error,” despite the fact that there was no loss of data connectivity.

Loading the service into my browser displayed my old familiar service. What had happened?

Searching Twitter only resulted in finding a couple of other people who’d noticed the service.

Is Google trialling the service in the UK? Is it because I initially got Google Play Music through a loophole when it was US only? Was it because I occasionally use a US VPN?

Who knows. But I wouldn’t mind getting the service back. I was quite enjoying “Ambient Scandinavian Stargazing.” (See screenshot above from a tab I left open)

[Update 7 September: And radio seems to be back again!]

Screenshot 2015-09-07 at 22.45.40

[Update 10 September: And it’s gone again. This is getting ridiculous.]

[Update 11 September: And it’s back again. I’ve literally no idea whether I should or shouldn’t have access to this service and whether Google has genuinely launched it in the UK or not.]

[Final update: It went again pretty quickly, and it’s not been back. So new proper UK launch of the service yet.]