campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 28 November 2003 12:00AM
Mention is often made, rather glibly, about the depths of Rupert Murdoch's pockets. And it is also assumed, again quite superficially, that, uniquely among all media organisations, the Murdoch empire always gets just what the Murdoch empire wants. In the real world, things are rarely so simple.
In any case, how many of us would have the guts to punt £2 billion even on a short-priced favourite? But Ball's gamble was not a short-priced shoo-in. It wasn't even close.
When Ball was appointed in May 1999, BSkyB had arguably hit its wobbliest patch since its creation less than a decade earlier. It had just made an ill-advised and ultimately doomed bid for Manchester United - and that setback had sapped confidence as it entered the crucial stage of the digital television battle.
Many felt that digital would severely erode BSkyB's hard-won dominance of the multichannel television market. Sky had clearly cornered a market made up of people obsessed with sport or films or both - but the suspicion was that Sky would find it hard to grow much beyond this ultimately limited customer base. ONdigital (later to be rebranded as ITVdigital of course) would in theory have a more mainstream appeal, offering widescreen Coronation Street as well as football (albeit of a lower league variety) and films.
It was actually Ball's predecessor, Mark Booth, who had dreamed up the notion of giving away digital decoder boxes, but it would be the former's nerve that would be tested almost beyond endurance as the debts racked up. Sky Digital had 800,000 subscribers when Ball took over. Within 18 months that had risen to just under five million but debts had risen to £1.44 billion as a consequence. Debts peaked in December 2001 at £1.8 billion.
By then it was becoming clear that the gamble was going to pay off. Three months later, ITVdigital went under and Ball's assessment that ITV "couldn't run a bath" (an example of his ruthlessness and uncompromising sense of humour) will resonate long after the network's digital ambitions have been lost to history. Nearer to the truth, though, is that they came up against a formidable opponent at the top of his game.
Soon after resigning back in September, Ball was able to release a valedictory set of results which showed that subscriptions had passed the seven million barrier and that revenues under his tenure had doubled to a whopping £3.19 billion. BSkyB still has ambitious targets to meet and the Government clearly hopes that it will continue to do its part in completing the UK's digital television revolution. But one thing is clear - to date no-one has played a larger part in that revolution than Tony Ball.
He joins an eminent roll-call of past Campaign media achievers. David Yelland, the former editor of The Sun, won it last year and Michael Jackson, the erstwhile chief executive of Channel 4 (who now heads USA Entertainment Group), triumphed in 2001.
1999-present: Chief executive and managing director, BSkyB (outgoing)
1997-1999: President and chief executive, Fox/Liberty Networks
1996-1997: President and chief operating officer, Fox Sports
1993-1996: Head of production and operations, Sky Sports
1991-1993: Head of European production, Trans World International
1989-1991: Sports programming executive, British Satellite Broadcasting
1977-1989: Outside broadcast engineer, Thames Television
2002: David Yelland
2001: Michael Jackson
2000: Caroline Marland
1999: Marjorie Scardino
1998: David Elstein
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk