Ball takes BSkyB reins as Gates battle looms

For a man who courts anonymity, BSkyB’s new chief executive, Tony Ball, has taken on one of the most high profile - and daunting - battles the world of television will ever see: Sky versus Bill Gates.

For a man who courts anonymity, BSkyB’s new chief executive, Tony

Ball, has taken on one of the most high profile - and daunting - battles

the world of television will ever see: Sky versus Bill Gates.



Ball, whose appointment was tipped in Campaign last week and confirmed

on CampaignLive on Friday, takes up the reins of power at the satellite

broadcaster just as Gates starts to flex Microsoft’s muscle in the cable

TV market.



But while Ball is little known in the UK, colleagues say he is more than

capable of fighting satellite’s corner on behalf of Sky’s largest

shareholder, Rupert Murdoch.



The 43-year-old, British-born Ball is a Murdoch high-flier and,

according to insiders, is the personal choice of the News Corporation

chairman.



He is known for his tough, aggressive approach and his negotiation

skills - an echo, perhaps, of the Sam Chisholm days at Sky.



But arguably Ball’s biggest asset in his new job will be his experience

in the sports and pay-TV markets, underlining the continued importance

of sports programming to the Sky proposition.



Ball has worked for Sky before, as head of production at Sky Sports and

general manager of broadcasting. There, he helped establish the Sky

Sports brand before joining the Murdoch-owned US sports network,

Fox/Liberty, rising to become president and chief executive.



The official biography points out that during Ball’s tenure, Fox Sports

Net, the US sports news and programming cable network, grew to a

subscriber base of more than 68 million homes in less than three years.

FX, the cable channel, also achieved ratings success with the launch of

NYPD Blue, The X-Files and In Living Colour, while Fox Sports

International has seen significant growth throughout Latin America and

Asia.



According to Jerome Seydoux, BSkyB’s chairman: ’Tony Ball has a profound

knowledge of the pay-TV industry. He has a determination to continue

Sky’s success in the new digital age.’



As chief executive of BSkyB, Ball will now have to decide where to take

the company’s sports strategy after the failed bid for Manchester

United.



He will also have to renegotiate the TV rights for the Premier League in

2001. Although the current Premier League deal is under scrutiny from

the Office of Fair Trading, sport remains the main audience winner and

Sky cannot afford to falter in this area.



But success - or otherwise - will depend not simply on a capacity to

drive sports programming and the pay-TV market in general, but on Ball’s

ability to out-manoeuvre (and Murdoch’s to out-spend) Bill Gates.



Gates’ recent activity in the UK cable market (a 5 per cent stake in

NTL, 30 per cent in Telewest and negotiations with the largest cable

operator of all, Cable & Wireless Communications) may seem small-time,

but his presence is being viewed as testimony to the potential of the

cable sector, particularly when digital cable comes on-stream from this

summer.



Gates is tipped to be the catalyst for cable consolidation in the UK -

with the potential to unite the country’s three biggest cable operators

- but for Microsoft it is part of a global strategy. The computer

software giant is already developing cable TV interactive software and

its move into cable markets around the world is seen as an attempt to

defend its dominance of the PC market as the distinction between

computers and televisions diminishes.



Even without the Gates threat, Ball faces the problem of how to take the

Sky business forward now that digital is up and running. Ball is Sky’s

fifth chief in ten years and the first Brit to take control.



Rumours are also circulating that Murdoch might even sell off his 40 per

cent stake in Sky if tentative merger talks with the French broadcaster,

Canal Plus, reach fruition.



The bold Manchester United bid, the excitement of the digital launch and

the fireworks of this month’s set-top box giveaway might all pre-date

Ball, but there’s still plenty to play for at Sky.



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