Foxtel positions itself for subscriber growth and IPTV dominance

FOXTEL and AUSTAR will pay an estimated $593 million in cash and $85 million in contra to the AFL as part of the new $1.253 billion media rights deal for 2012 to 2016. Foxtel’s CEO Kim Williams AO told the Australian Financial Review that the new deal,

“…is a considered investment in terms of retaining our existing customers and attracting new customers. It will be a central element in continuing over growth.”

“Always, Always Foxtel was there.”  This is how 3aw’s Derryn Hinch described the new AFL media rights deal. A key observation that Foxtel needs AFL and could not afford to continue without it. Foxtel along with regional partner Austar now have the opportunity to drive subscriber growth in southern markets (Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia), which traditionally have struggled to match the national figure of 33% of households with subscription television.

Foxtel first launched in 1995 with 20 cable channels; there are now over 200 channels available. The company is owned 50% by Telstra, 25% by News Limited and 25% by Consolidated Media Holdings (CMH).  According to CMH’s first-half result for the six months to 31 December 2010, Foxtel had a total of 1.63 million subscribers and although subscriber growth was flat compared with a 3% growth in the second half of 2009/10, its EBITDA result of $278.0 million reflected an improvement of 16.6% on the 1H10 result of $238.5 million. This result evidences that Foxtel needs to attract new subscribers and although the new AFL deal will likely increase Foxtel’s cost base by 3% annually, it is a necessary trade off to drive subscriber growth.

The major win for Foxtel out of the new AFL broadcast deal is that it has won the right to broadcast all AFL matches LIVE, excluding the Grand Final. When Foxtel first won the right to broadcast AFL in 2002, its Fox Footy Channel only showed three Premiership season matches live and exclusive, and under the current arrangement Foxtel’s exclusive matches only increased by one per round to four. Both these deals excluded any live final football. However, as noted for the next five years Foxtel has live and exclusive five matches each week with every other match (excluding the Grand Final) and the Brownlow Medal being a live simulcast of Seven’s coverage.

The problem for Foxtel previously is that although its coverage was first class, the premium or high interest  games such as the ANZAC Day blockbuster or a close preliminary final were always the purview of the free-to-air broadcaster. Even though under the new deal Seven will still have the host broadcast rights to the 2 best games each week, as they will be the Friday and Saturday night scheduled matches (this is thanks to the new AFL – Australian Government Deed which was entered into off the back of changes to the Anti-siphoning laws that permitted Foxtel to bid directly for AFL games for the first time ever), Foxtel will now be able to broadcast these games live as well. Therefore the case for an AFL fan to subscribe to Foxtel as the ultimate destination to involve oneself with the AFL just became a whole lot more compelling.

The ability to not only broadcast the best games each round live, but also broadcast every other game to the niche subscriber who wants to ride the roller coaster with their team on the way to the final series, should result in a subscriber bonanza for Foxtel (and Austar), which the subscription platform has failed to see in the last 18 months, even though existing subscribers have continued to spend more money monthly with Foxtel. As James Chessell wrote in today’s Australian Newspaper,

“The pay-TV group needs more customers in Adelaide and Perth, where its market penetration lags Sydney and Melbourne, and it clearly believes that offering live AFL is the way to do it.”

There is evidence to suggest that such a strategy should result in subscriber growth. Currently Foxtel through Fox Sports broadcasts 5 of 8 NRL games exclusively live each week and these matches dominate the weekly subscription ratings. For example, for the week ending 16 April 2011, 3 of the top 4 subscription shows were NRL matches, with 5 of the top 10 also NRL matches. Out of the Top 50 programs, 8 were NRL matches or related programming. These broadcasts generated strong viewership as well. For example, the Roosters v Broncos game reached some 349,000 viewers, whilst the top rating AFL game, St Kilda v Essendon reached 305,000 viewers. This shows that quality matches on Foxtel draws strong viewership. This is why Foxtel by purchasing all AFL games live (excluding the GF) and making them available on the new Fox Sports AFL channel as part of their normal sports package will be an appetising option for all AFL fans and most likely drive up Foxtel and Austar’s subscriber numbers.

This is only half the story of Foxtel’s triumph in the AFL deal. The other win apart from compelling content to drive subscriber growth, especially in southern markets, is that Foxtel has stitched up the IPTV rights for the next five years. As the Australian Financial Review’s Chanticleer notes this deal is,

“perfectly time[d] to expire when the national broadband network has reached 90 per cent of Australian households.”

Kim Williams AO in his tenure as Foxtel boss has always been an innovative digital media leader. Foxtel has been at the forefront of digital delivery of content over new media for the last decade. Some highlights include:

  • the launch of Foxtel Digital in 2004;
  • Foxtel on Telstra Mobile in 2006; and
  • Foxtel on Microsoft Xbox Live in 2010.

These launches over the past decade make Foxtel an innovate content delivery company. Foxtel also confirmed its strength in this regard by launching its major IPTV offering in 2010 with its High Definition iQ2 set-top-box. This system is an IPTV enabled device that delivers TV shows and Movies straight to lounge rooms. At the time of launch Mr Williams AO said,

“FOXTEL On Demand delivers further on FOXTEL’s compelling consumer proposition of putting you in control of your television viewing and allowing you to watch what you want, when you want to and increasingly over a device of your choice.

FOXTEL has been investing in its technology to build on the suite of services available to our subscribers and with the launch of On Demand, FOXTEL has moved to the internet and completed its offering which includes HD, 3D and Internet TV to become the home of entertainment.”

To cap off the last 12 months Foxtel struck a deal with its half-owner Telstra to launch 30 Foxtel channels via Telstra’s own IPTV offering, the T-Box. This deal will now be capitalised on because of the new AFL media rights deal. Foxtel under the agreement retains live IPTV rights to all nine weekly games. These matches will be delivered over Telstra’s T-Box offering and Xbox Live, but critically only with a Foxtel subscription through those platforms. Whilst Telstra did win the IPTV rights on T-Box to one live game a week and live rights for all matches broadcast over mobile and tablet devices, they do not have the majority of IPTV rights, meaning Foxtel has retained the majority of IPTV rights (although it is noted that Foxtel is half owned by Telstra).

The impact of Foxtel’s win in this regard is that it will have more compelling content to deliver over subscription television and IP television. As noted, Foxtel already has 780,000 internet-enabled set-top-boxes in Australian households and this number will grow as consumers subscribe to Foxtel for their AFL fix over the next five years. This means that when IPTV becomes a real challenger to traditional broadcasting models, Foxtel could already have in the vicinity of some 1 million households with IPTV ready set-top boxes and users who already know how to use such devices.  Therefore when the National Broadband Network has reached critical mass and the IPTV retail sector becomes crowded with new players such as Fetch TV, Foxtel will be well positioned, along with its majority owner Telstra to have the dominant position in this new market place.

IPTV is where new broadcast revenues will come from over the next decade for broadcasters. Foxtel in targeting these new revenue streams now will not only have the hardware already in consumer households by the time IPTV reaches critical mass, but will also have the compelling and exclusive content to deliver to such devices. This will place Foxtel in a strong market position against competitors because they will already have the key elements in place to differentiate themselves to consumers in a crowded IPTV retail market.

According to the Australian, Foxtel is understood to have paid about $650 million for the AFL rights, almost double what it paid for the right to broadcast four games a week under the current deal. However as Harold Mitchell, Australia’s biggest media buyer said,

“It’s a very good deal for Foxtel. They will build subscriptions and hold them, cementing their strength in the market.”

This deal for Foxtel is about positioning itself for the future, in becoming a major player in the burgeoning IPTV market by growing existing subscriber numbers. The subscription TV company will by the time IPTV reaches critical mass, already have an established customer base, compelling content and a distribution business across a wide-variety of IPTV deliverable technologies through a number of hardware and service partners.

The Foxtel press release aptly described yesterday’s AFL agreement as historic, as it will revolutionise sports broadcasting in Australia. This is true, but it should not be forgotten that the agreement will allow Foxtel to position itself as the dominant player in the IPTV market in years to come. This is primarily because the AFL deal will drive subscriber growth for Foxtel, meaning each of its subscriber households will already have IPTV ready-boxes in their lounge rooms as retail competition heats up.


The Australian Newspaper, Friday 29 April 2011

The Australian Financial Review, Friday 29 April 2011

Mediaweek Magazine, 25 April 2011

CMH Press Release – CMH Reports 2011 First-Half NPAT Result of $45.3 million

FOXTEL Launches Internet TV Service FOXTEL On Demand

Telstra punts on AFL tie-up

Foxtel eyes challenging outlook as profit rises

Foxtel – What We Do

Telstra to offer FOXTEL on T-Box in May 2011

Media Release from The Australian Football League

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