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
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
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
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
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
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.