A clarion call for the break-up of Rupert Murdoch’s UK satellite TV monopoly BSkyB was issued last night by the Visiting Professor of Broadcast Media at Oxford University, Barry Cox. The irony of the demand is all the more piquant in that the professorship is sponsored by NewsCorp’s UK subsidiary and BSkyB sibling, News International.
But Cox is no pie-in-the-Sky academic. A former senior executive at LWT, he also holds down a number of media-oriented day jobs including deputy-chair of publicly-owned Channel Four, the chair of the Digital Television Stakeholders Group and – as one of the Blair administration’s inner circle – a government and industry advisor on the switch from analogue to digital television.
Cox’s lecture, the third in a series of four, Digital TV: paying the piper but not calling the tune, argued that viewers must be able to choose what programmes and channels they pay for, not be forced to buy services they don't want to watch. “The problem with digital television is that we cannot just pay for what we want,” he said.
A break-up of Sky, Cox argued, would compel it to function solely as a carrier without opportunity to give preferential treatment to its own channels or discriminate against rivals. Its dominant position, which it seized after three decisive strategic moves following its launch in the early 90s, has led to a lack of “effective competition either within the UK satellite market, [or] between different pay TV operators.
“BSkyB is now profitable – it no longer needs the economic prop of forcing viewers into the basic and premium packages it has operated for more than ten years,” Cox asserted, urging that this situation be addressed by Ofcom, the government’s new supra-regulator for broadcast media, the internet and telecoms.
“Sky has undoubtedly been better organised and better managed than its rivals,” Cox conceded, “but it has also been extremely ruthless in its behaviour.”
He wound up with an emotive rallying cry: “For democratic and culture reasons we need to ensure diversity and quality of supply. Leaving this to the commercial judgments of a handful of platform operators is unlikely to be enough to guarantee these crucial outcomes.”
Data sourced from: MediaGuardian.co.uk and Blueprint (University of Oxford newsletter); additional content by WARC staff