Profile: Adam Singer - Iconoclast of the cable guys

His acerbic wit has made him some enemies, but the chairman of Flextech is using his US experience to shape his vision for the UK. Dawn Hayes reports
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YOU WOULDN'T always be able to guess that Adam Singer, chairman of the fast-growing media company Flextech, is an advocate of cable TV, let alone a director of one of the leading UK cable companies.

In a speech to industry representatives last October, he cheerfully observed that "the problem is that the latent cable subscriber cannot get a cable company to answer the phone, so they can turn up on the wrong day to install the cable by strip-mining the garden, so that the subscriber can find out how terrible the programming is, and disconnect".

He proceeded to outline a list of bad experiences with cable television companies suffered by people he knew, which had some in the audience squirming with embarrassment.

In the same speech, he said France's satellite TV company Canal Plus's strong-arm tactics could be an example to British Sky Broadcasting group "in the way that Mussolini's Italy was a role model for Hitler".

Singer, aged 46, joined Flextech as chairman last July. The company is the biggest supplier of basic cable and satellite channels in the UK, including UK Living, UK Gold and Playboy TV. He is well known in the industry for his iconoclastic views and humorous but always apposite jibes: about politicians who have failed to grasp that in a digital world where phone, TV, on-line networks and the Internet collide, they cannot hope to control TV and information output; about regulators who awarded BSkyB a monopoly in pay TV to the detriment of consumers; and about the British media establishment's myopia in denying their empires are under threat.

Singer calls it detached debate, but it has made him enemies. "His views don't make him necessarily 100 per cent popular," says Anthony Fry, head of the media unit at Credit Suisse First Boston. Yet, apparently he has his supporters too.

"He's often perceived too much as simply a very witty and acerbic speaker, but beneath that is an extremely intelligent and caring individual," says Stephen Davidson, chief executive of Telewest Communications, the second- biggest cable company in Britain, on whose board Singer is a non-executive director.

Despite his lineage - he is the son of Aubrey Singer, deputy director- general of the BBC under Sir Alistair Milne - and despite his conversational manner, which tells you he had an establishment education, he has just one O-level to his name. "Any education I have is what I've read myself," he says.

Singer is congenial, witty, quick-minded and artful at pitching his conversation at different personalities. He has been on a fast track for the last 15 years.

"Adam is a very rare species in the media world - he's someone who's prepared not only to think the unthinkable, but also to say the unsayable," says Fry.

The most significant part of Singer's career has been spent in the US with John Malone's Tele-Communications Group, the biggest cable company in the world. Before that he spent two years with Viacom, and before that he was at the BBC.

The US market has shaped his vision of how the information and entertainment industries will develop, a vision from which Flextech is benefiting. "The underlying dynamics and economics of the UK market are exactly the same," says Singer. "It's just a smaller pond."

He says his lack of a formal education has given him a constant need to prove himself, which is what took him to the US in the first place."I wanted to find out if I was good enough to go and work in a US corporation and work for John Malone, one of the smartest people around. If you can do it in the UK, that's OK, it's a big market, but it's not the market. If you could survive in corporate US, that was really kind of clever."

He has become a self-appointed prophet of the tide of change he says is irreversible now that digital technology has arrived. "The whole nature of this future age is that you no longer tune in, you click to," says Singer. In the US, enough people are getting on-line for their entertainment to have given America Online around $400m (pounds 240m) in advertising revenues in 1997, stolen from the traditional TV networks and cable channels.

Just as the US television networks are feeling the effects of digital technology, so will the UK companies - ITV, the BBC, Channel 4 and others - says Singer. The introduction of digital TV by next year will make all UK homes multi-channel homes, as opposed to just a quarter today. The number of TV channels will swell to between 250 and 300, from fewer than 30 now.

Already ITV's share of viewing has fallen to 26 per cent from 50 per cent in homes that have added cable and satellite TV to the five terrestrial channels. Singer predicts that ITV's share will drop to as little as 20 per cent in time.

The digital revolution won't mean people will "watch Titanic in the back of a taxi on our cellular wide-screen Seiko watches, while using laptops to do some interactive banking via the modem on the gas meter, that uses the washing machine's fractal aerial to notify your satnav system when your cyberpet's laundry is done," says Singer with characteristic irony.

"It's also not about whether I'm going to watch Coronation Street on my TV or my PC. It's about integrating various pieces of information, the way you move to it, and just the vast amounts of information coming into the house," he says.

Singer joined Flextech full-time after five years as president of Tele- Communications International (Tinta), the international arm of Tele-Com- munications which he started up. He came back to the UK partly because the travel meant that he hardly saw his wife and three children.

When he left Tinta he took a non-executive role but now he is no longer on the board. He says it is because it is no longer relevant. "They're over there and I'm here."

Whether or not that's the full story, Singer's relationship with Tinta has been crucial to the development of Flextech, and Tinta is the biggest shareholder with a controlling vote. The other key factor is chief executive Roger Luard, who transformed the company from providing oil services into an owner and manager of cable and satellite channels in 1990.

Flextech provides 16 channels to 25 million viewers in the UK and Europe. "We are the bread, the butter, the cheese - we'll let Sky do the caviar," says Singer. "Flextech shouldn't exist. The fact that it does shows that ITV missed an opportunity," he adds.

He concedes that the ITV companies had their licence renewals to think about when multi-channel TV was born in Britain. Nevertheless, he says: "Because British TV companies did not understand the cable and satellite opportunity in the UK, they also missed the opportunity to build these networks abroad, which is one of the reasons why none of the main UK television companies are major international media companies."

Flextech also has a 19 per cent stake in Scottish Media Group, which holds the ITV licences for the Scottish TV and Grampian TV franchises.

Without Tinta, Fry says, Flextech would not have wooed the BBC as a partner in UK TV, a joint venture that launched four pay-TV channels in the UK last year and gave Flextech new weight. The channels draw on the BBC's programme archive. "Roger is the deal-maker and Adam is the strategist and the public face of Flextech," says Fry.

Reports that the two don't see eye to eye are dismissed by Mr Singer. "Roger is one of the most complicated people I've ever met, but once he's had a couple of cups of coffee, there's not too much yelling and shouting," he says.

Critics say the proof of the two executives' relative skills lies in Flextech's share price. Under Luard, Flextech's shares increased eight- fold to a high of 802.5p in February 1997. Since Singer joined, the shares have fallen by 32 per cent to a low of 484.5p.

Singer is devoting much of his time now to trying to negotiate terms with BSkyB to run the UK TV channels on its digital service. If he doesn't get the right terms, the company is threatening to set up its own satellite distribution network.

"It's very unlikely we will - we see ourselves as very much in the content provision business," says Singer. "Sky has been a beacon to us all in showing that if you have your own satellite dish base completely integrated with your own channels, you have a very, very valuable business. It's not surprising we look at that and say could we be one of those too, please."