Private Investor: When the going gets tough, the tough watch satellite TV

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The Independent Online

Imagine Britain in a few months' time. (No, this isn't some left-over script from a party-political broadcast. I just want to peep gingerly at the near future.) Interest rates up, perhaps. Not ruinous, but perhaps a little bit of belt-tightening is called for. Credit-card bill making you feel a little giddy. No sign of fuel prices coming down. Council tax as bad as ever. Another paltry pay rise on the way.

Imagine Britain in a few months' time. (No, this isn't some left-over script from a party-political broadcast. I just want to peep gingerly at the near future.) Interest rates up, perhaps. Not ruinous, but perhaps a little bit of belt-tightening is called for. Credit-card bill making you feel a little giddy. No sign of fuel prices coming down. Council tax as bad as ever. Another paltry pay rise on the way.

Not an outlandish idea, you'll agree. There seems to be plenty of news from the high street that confirms the picture of a gently slowing economy, with consumer spending at last running out of oomph. So, what are you going to economise on?

According to BSkyB, it won't be your satellite-TV subscription. The way the folk from Sky see things, if you're going to cut down on fripperies, you'll most likely stop your gym membership or going out for meals, and instead spend more time in that lovely home you've just bought with a a gigantic mortgage. After all, if you've just borrowed on a multiple of five or six times your income, you might as well enjoy your domestic surroundings. Watching the telly is the cheap alternative to a night on the town, so goes the argument, and thus Sky is (relatively) recession-proof.

Well, I buy it. The company's results last week suggested that subscriber growth is continuing apace. Even Freeview, which, unlike Sky, offers lots of extra channels for nothing, has failed to spoil the Sky party so far.

However, there is evidence that all is not as well as it might be. What they call "arpu" (average revenue per customer) is down, suggesting that, if there is belt-tightening, it has taken the form of a drift to the less expensive Sky packages. The critics have also noticed that the "churn" rate of non-renewing customers is higher than it was, caused, no doubt, by a lower spend on retaining subscribers.

Well, there you go. I don't think that any company can give the markets all that they want all of the time, and Sky's performance has been creditable, doubly so in the light of some fairly gloomy predictions from the analysts. The fact that Sky has beaten expectations is heartening to those of us who stuck with it. I have as many doubts as the next man about the whole Murdoch dynasty, and, as I have often said, I am fully conscious that Sky is very much their family circus.

That doesn't, however, stop me from making some sort of judgement about my modest investment in the company, and I am happy with it, even though it is sagging a bit. I bought at 628p, on average, and they're about 528p now.

Maybe it's just City suspicion, but it seems a shame that Sky doesn't get the recognition it deserves as a business. I still don't have the courage to add heavily to my existing stake, but I am tempted. People like me, I suppose, will just wait until Sky hits the 10 million-subscribers mark, at which point everyone will start writing them up and ramping the shares.

Talking of recession-proof business and going out, my investment in Belhaven, a Scottish brewer, has led to some interesting invitations to breweries all over Britain to do some "on the ground research".

I'm grateful and shall be embarking on a national brewery-crawl shortly. In the meantime, I ought to mention that my Belhaven shares have subsided somewhat, along with all the feverish talk about a takeover. But it's great hold on fundamentals, whatever happens (and even if people do stop going to the pub as often).

Just space for a little update on my three big speculative plays. Well, after a good deal of huff and puff, Matrix Communications has gone sharply into reverse, so I'm only 20 per cent up there; Sportingbet, the online gambling outfit, is better at 45 per cent; but the star is Falkland Oil and Gas, up 80 per cent. Keep digging, as Rupert Murdoch might say.

s.o'grady@independent.co.uk

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