If you ever doubted the widely held belief that BSkyB is absolutely recession-proof, then look no further than its results for the second half of 2009, published last week.
While other sectors of the TV medium were apparently spiralling deeper into the doldrums (the BBC playing dead to escape a possible mauling from an incoming Tory administration, Channel 4 and Five both casting about for a reason to go on living, and ITV moping that it's still saddled with Contract Rights Renewal), Sky was announcing half-year revenues up 10 per cent to £2.87 billion.
The TV airtime market may be bumping along the bottom, but pay-TV continues to shine. BSkyB made 172,000 net additions to its subscriber base, bringing the total to 9.7 million, a whisker short of its milestone target of ten million.
It's not just selling to more people, it's selling them more things too - including broadband and telephony as well as TV. And, arguably, the most eye-catching development under this heading is the accelerating growth of high-definition TV: net additions were double those for the equivalent period last year, bringing Sky's HD total to just over two million households. And, last weekend, Sky took this to a new level with the launch of its 3D TV service via a broadcast of the Arsenal versus Manchester United game in a handful of pubs.
Big deal, you might argue. HD surely represents merely a last hurrah for old-fashioned TV - and a far more significant development last week was the beta launch of SeeSaw, Arqiva's archive video-on-demand service.
In any case, while HD is wonderful news for Sky, it's perhaps not quite so exciting for advertisers and agencies. Neil Johnston, the joint head of buying at OMD, doesn't agree. He says that HD is part and parcel of a growth in importance of main screen TV viewing and event TV. Which has to be good news for advertisers.
He adds: "It's part of what's making TV great again. We've been through a period where the focus has been on concerns about digital switchover - and on issues like fragmentation and the fact that the big mainstream commercial broadcasters have been losing share. Meanwhile, the man and woman in street have been getting on with it. They've been buying big flatscreen television sets and cinema systems - and the icing on the cake is to get a Sky HD box. It's part of a general renaissance of TV. Look at how well big programme events like X Factor did last year."
Absolutely, Andy Zonfrillo, the exchange director at Mindshare, agrees. He says it's an encouraging sign of vital health when a medium can continue to evolve so confidently: "There are now just over two million homes with HD boxes and 11 million with sets that are ready to take HD. The cost of sets and boxes is continuing to come down and Freeview is coming - HD will be available to 50 per cent of UK households by the time the World Cup kicks off later this year. I'd say this all adds up to a significant development."
Mark Sherwood, the global head of context planning at Lowe Worldwide, wouldn't disagree that HD is an encouraging success story. It's just that he has reservations about its importance to advertisers. He comments: "Sky's HD figures are a great example of a broadcaster growing its business - and we should all welcome the notion that people are willing to upgrade their viewing experience. But I'm not sure that HD generally changes the rules for advertisers."
Meanwhile, Nigel Walley, the managing director of Decipher, advances the theory that Sky's HD story is part of an intriguing bigger picture. It is, he suggests, yet more evidence that this is shaping up to be a truly bizarre year for the TV medium. There are so many services and devices launching this year that will change the landscape - and HD is just one facet of that. But he doesn't think anyone should doubt that HD is good for advertisers.
He says: "TV is good at delivering big shiny content - and HD is particularly good at it. So any advertiser spending large creative budgets on exquisite content would naturally want their content shown in the best quality, on the biggest screens and next to the most important programmes.
"In general, what is good for TV is good for advertisers, and the arrival of HD over the last few years neatly coincided with the consumer roll-out of flatscreens. For the first time in ages, the Barb numbers are showing audiences for the second and third TVs in people's homes falling compared to the main TV. Everyone wants to sit and watch the big, expensive flatscreen in the lounge, even if you are not watching HD content all the time."
YES - Neil Johnston, joint head of buying, OMD
"We're seeing viewing rising on households' main TV sets and falling on secondary screens. HD is serving to underline what we've always really known - that people want to watch a good movie on a really good TV set."
YES - Andy Zonfrillo, exchange director, Mindshare
"The point is that HD represents an improved viewer experience. And you can't contrast this with PC-based, video-on-demand - because that will soon be in HD too. We're seeing positive stories about the audiovisual medium - and it's important for any ad medium to keep evolving."
MAYBE - Mark Sherwood, global head of context planning, Lowe
"Clearly, it's an opportunity to make more engaging advertising and that will always be of interest strategically. On the other hand, until HD becomes the norm, there may continue to be cost implications for advertisers."
YES - Nigel Walley, MD, Decipher
"The flatscreen revolution as well as HD has amounted to a re-engagement with the big telly in the corner of the lounge. Advertisers need a strong, confident TV industry. HD is one part of delivering that."
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