SPOTLIGHT ON: MARK BOOTH - Booth’s sudden move focuses attention on Murdoch’s plans/Why did Mark Booth leave the BSkyB job half done? Alasdair Reid investigates

It has been a good week for the media industry’s conspiracy theorists - few of whom had any time whatsoever for the official line on Mark Booth’s shock resignation from BSkyB. Should you have missed it, the Murdoch orthodoxy went something like this: Booth, BSkyB’s chief executive and a man on a career high having just completed phase one of the launch of Sky’s digital service, was about to be poached by Microsoft.

It has been a good week for the media industry’s conspiracy

theorists - few of whom had any time whatsoever for the official line on

Mark Booth’s shock resignation from BSkyB. Should you have missed it,

the Murdoch orthodoxy went something like this: Booth, BSkyB’s chief

executive and a man on a career high having just completed phase one of

the launch of Sky’s digital service, was about to be poached by

Microsoft.



Bill Gates’ outfit, which wanted Booth to mastermind its continued

expansion in internet services, was tempting him with a dollars 25

million golden handshake.



Murdoch didn’t want to let him go. So how does he keep him? He offers

him the position of chief executive and a stake in a new Murdoch company

called e-partners, which will buy minority stakes in internet and

interactive television companies.



In other words, Booth was indispensable not to BSkyB, but to the Murdoch

empire. And for his part, Booth rejected Micro-serfdom combined with

guaranteed riches in favour of slightly more freedom and far riskier

odds of getting his hands on the serious money. Certainly, he will have

a lot of cash to play with at e-partners - reportedly upwards of dollars

300 million - but he’s basically still playing roulette on Rupert’s

riverboat.



Quicker than you could say JFK or Oliver Stone, alternative explanations

began circulating. Theory number one was that Booth had been singled out

for punishment for BSkyB’s failure to secure the Manchester United

deal.



Number two (the grassy knoll theory) was that this was all to do with

Murdoch’s daughter, Elisabeth - who, in her current position as managing

director of Sky Networks, supposedly stands on rung number two of the

BSkyB ladder.



Analysts have long accepted that, if Murdoch has a weakness or a blind

spot, it’s the unremitting promotion of the interests of his offspring

within the company.



But theory number three is perhaps the best of them all. This concerns

the on-off merger talks with Canal+, continental Europe’s dominant

satellite pay-TV company which, like BSkyB, is currently pushing digital

in a big way. The two have parallel strengths and complementary

weaknesses - BSkyB is desperate to get into Europe; Canal+ wants

Anglo-Saxon credentials and a link with a Hollywood film and television

production giant.



Previously, the main barrier to a deal is thought to have been Booth,

who would have been sidelined by a merger. Canal+ has made it clear they

want their man in charge of a merged company.



You take your pick. What is not in doubt, though, is the success of

Booth’s brief tenure. He has not only driven SkyDigital take-up at a

rate that has surprised everyone, but he has managed with aplomb.

Commentators familiar with the internal workings of the company praise

his talent for strong leadership while still being liked by a high

percentage of Sky staffers.



But David Cuff, the broadcast director of Initiative Media, says it’s

almost unbelievable that a man like Booth would leave a job less than

half done. ’Stage one is persuading existing analogue subscribers to

upgrade to digital. Booth has built some momentum. But the ultimate test

is whether digital can really work as a new interactive hybrid medium.

Many will be surprised that he hasn’t felt able to see the job

through.’



But perhaps that’s all academic - what matters now is the future. As one

analyst put it: ’Now that the Manchester United thing is off, Murdoch

will be looking for another direction to go in. And now that Booth is

gone, the likelihood of a Canal+ deal has to increase. I’m not saying

his departure is directly motivated by those reasons - but now that he

has gone, certain options can be revisited. I’m willing to bet that his

ultimate successor is French and doesn’t come from within the current

Murdoch empire.’



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