Private Investor: I'm putting my money into couch potatoes

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The Independent Online

Who's going to do well out of the credit crunch? According to all the consumer sentiment surveys and some of the company results in the leisure sector, it's easy to see who's going to do badly. We're not going to the restaurant and the pub as much, which has certainly hit my various restaurant group shares, including Carluccio's and Tasty.

Well, if we're not going out as often, we must be spending more time in our lovely homes, the ones we've got big such mortgages on. This, let us be honest, means being parked in front of the television or the computer screen surfing away on the World Wide Web.

So it's just as well that I also own shares in BSkyB. Last week's results looked much worse than they were. A full-year loss was recorded, but basically as a result of a write-down in its 17.9 per cent stake in ITV. Now, don't get me wrong. Although a paper loss, it is big, given that ITV shares have roughly halved since BSkyB decided they were a wonderful investment. It's a paper loss, but at least some of it will have to be crystallised before long because the regulator, Ofcom, has ordered them to reduce the stake down to below 7.5 per cent, on the grounds that it's anti-competitive. Anti-profit, too, we now see.

BSkyB is appealing the decision, but sooner or later it seems they will have to take a hit on the ITV adventure. Not good.

On the other hand, the underlying business seems to be one of those that has a plausible story in good times and bad. In the upswing people feel more extravagant and opt for Sky's more expensive packages. In the downswing, when we're forced to stay home, we watch Sky all the same. Win, win.

There were other hopeful signs too. "Churn" is the traditional woe of the satellite broadcaster, the tendency of subscribers to just drop out. BSkyB has tried hard to slow this, and the rate is down, though at almost 10 per cent it still seems quite high. Anyway, progress is being made.

Second, I notice that the number of net new subscribers is rising, up another 92,000 in three months. No doubt that will slow as we hit recession, but that might be made up for in the number of hours each Sky subscriber actually spends in front of the telly. And of course Sky will sell you broadband and a phone service if you like.

Most encouragingly, the Sky News operation seems free of any bias or obligation towards its corporate dimension. The Sky News website, for example, almost gleefully reported the superficially bad news for its parent under the headline "BSkyB shares down after charge hit", which was a perfectly good grabby headline and did reflect the slump in the stock as soon as the news came out, but did not include the fact that the shares ended slightly up on the day. It was refreshing to see a Murdoch dominated entity such as this reporting such news in such a fashion.

Let us hope against hope that Rupert doesn't decide to push Sky News towards the sort of right-wing bias routinely and proudly displayed by its American sibling Fox News. From what I've seen of Fox News it may well be an interesting alternative to the liberal bias you occasionally glimpsed in other new organisations, but it's a pretty bizarre way to redress the balance.

Better I think to have every news organisation try to avoid any kind of party political or cultural bias rather than allowing all of them to report whatever nonsense they like in the hope that they will sort of cancel each other out.

Broadcasting doesn't work like that, and I for one would be very sorry to see Sky News decline in that way after the 20 years they've spent turning it from a joke into a respectable alternative to the BBC, who had to play catch-up when they launched News 24 (also very good).

Mind you, BSkyB, like its News Corp part-parent (News Corp holds 39 per cent to the shares), is very much a Murdoch family circus, so minority shareholders have to put up with things that they may not like (quite a few, as it happens).

That is not really the point of owning shares in an entity such as BSkyB. The point is to try to make money. That doesn't come from the news side, but from the football, and it's true that Sky has had to pay some more to own the rights to most of the premiership games. In a recession though, that also may be money well spent. Because even when the job's gone, the car's been sold, the holidays cancelled and the trips to the pub or restaurant a distant memory, there are a lot of our fellow citizens who will not give up on their team, even though they may not be able to afford to travel to see them play.

When Saturday comes, they'll be watching them on Sky, slump or no slump.

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