Profile: Mark Booth - A hand of steel to hold up Sky

The polite, mild-mannered BSkyB chief is the polar opposite of his predecessor - and the right man to take BSkyB digital, says Dawn Hayes

MARK BOOTH waves away doubts that he can get us a table at The Pharmacy, one of London's most fashionable restaurants, at a moment's notice.

"I'll make sure we get in," says the new chief executive of British Sky Broadcasting Group, in the tone of someone who's used to getting things done his way.

The Pharmacy is a mini-theme park of the work of artist Damien Hirst, a marketing ploy of the kind that appeals to Booth. Seated in the antiseptic-looking restaurant, whose walls are lined with what look like a series of pharmaceutical products, Booth explains how he plans to take BSkyB into the digital television era and increase its audience from 25 per cent of Britain's homes to 75 per cent within as little as five years.

Booth has a tough act to follow. Former chief executive Sam Chisholm, who left for "health reasons" last year, had built BSkyB from a loss-making startup into a high-margin money-spinner in nine years.

His successor plans a new focus on marketing. The company's next challenge will be to tempt consumers other than football-mad men to pay for its services instead of trying to get more money from existing customers. Customers now pay pounds 12 a month to receive 30 channels. "There comes a ceiling to what you can charge - after that it's about how you package things," says Booth.

Despite an array of challenges facing BSkyB, it has become a jewel in the crown of the global media empire built by Rupert Murdoch, who owns 40 per cent of the company, and has succeeded in driving a wedge into the British TV establishment. It achieved this mainly by buying and dominating television sports coverage, particularly live Premier League football. The emphasis on sport, however, has come at the expense of potential revenues from non-sports fans, says Booth.

BSkyB's subscription sales growth is slowing. That, along with increased investment costs, will cause the company to announce a 3 per cent drop in first-half earnings per share to 6.9 pence per share on Tuesday, from 7.12 pence a year earlier, according to media analysts. They expect a 5 per cent drop in first-half profits to pounds 126m, compared with pounds 133m a year ago.

"BSkyB no longer has the pre-eminent upper hand it had," says Mathew Horsman, media analyst at Henderson Crosthwaite. "There's been a slowdown in subscription sales growth, and cable TV companies are pulling back from building networks. There has to be a shift in BSkyB's strategy now."

The days of 50 per cent monopoly margins are over, analysts say. With the introduction of digital TV this year will come competitors; regulation will be tougher, both within the UK and from the EU Commission; its dominance of sports programming is not assured as programme costs rise and others compete for it; and investment in digital technology is expected to keep profits flat for the next two years.

Enter Booth, 41 years old, Kansas-born and a veteran of the cable industry since 1980. He is described by those who have worked with him as fair and polite, even understated - the polar opposite of Chisholm.

"But anyone who makes the mistake of thinking Booth is a soft touch because he's got good manners would, in my view, be making a very serious mistake," says Sir Dennis Stevenson, a BSkyB board member and chairman of Pearson, which owns 4.3 per cent of the satellite TV company. "He's a steel hand in a velvet glove."

Booth has never run anything as big as BSkyB and he will have to prove he can match his predecessor's skill in negotiating BSkyB's multiple agendas. What he has proved is that he can get a greenfield TV project off the ground successfully. Shareholders hope he can do the same for the 200 channels of digital TV BSkyB has said it will start by mid-year.

Booth set up MTV Europe and turned around Foxtel, an Australian pay-TV venture between News Corporation and Australia's state-owned telecommunications company, Telstra Corp. Foxtel is one of three major pay-TV operators in Australia. In between these operations, he also worked for Maxwell Entertainment Group and United International Holdings.

"I don't think British people will ever watch as much TV as people in the United States, but that's not what multi-channel TV is about," says Booth. "It's about getting a better chance of seeing what you want.

"Digital TV is going to have a profound effect on how people perceive television," he says. "It's going to give genuine control to the consumer for the first time, particularly with movies."

BSkyB will also spend more on British programmes, including made-for- TV films, and on improving its movie content. "We're in negotiations with a handful of companies for made-for-TV movies," says Booth, refusing to be drawn further.

Despite the grand plans, however, investors are concerned at BSkyB's increased costs and the challenges that it faces. The company's share price has tumbled 40 per cent in the last year to a new low of 361.5p on Friday, its lowest point in two years.

Booth, who says Americans find him reserved, seems unruffled by this and by analysts' concerns. "It would be unusual for the company to maintain its profits from last year in an environment where it is investing in digital," he says.

"The proof will be in the pudding. We'll spend more on marketing and programming - prudently - but we think it will produce results. We'd like to get the same kind of credibility in other areas that we developed in sports television," he says. "Our movie channels can be much stronger and better than they are today."

However, he seems to suggest BSkyB won't necessarily be prepared to pay the equivalent of the 70 per cent hike in fees paid by the US networks ABC, CBS and Fox to renew their contracts to televise American grid-iron games in the National Football League.

"We put pounds 670m into the English Premier League, and that's a decision about how you use money," he said. "It was a good decision, but there are other ways we spend money and maybe there's ways to do things smarter and better."

Some analysts feel that BSkyB will win through in the digital environment. "You have to look through the two flat years to a new growth path that Sky will dominate," says Horsman.

But others are not so convinced. "There is more bad news on the horizon," writes Nick Bertolotti, media analyst at JP Morgan Securities, in a research note. "The balance of power is shifting away from BSkyB towards cable and digital terrestrial television, as we expect new satellite subscribers to tail off rapidly in the future."

Consumers can gain access to BSkyB's services either by buying a satellite dish and paying monthly charges to BSkyB, or by getting a cable subscription. From next year, the Carlton and Granada terrestrial franchises plan to launch another service on digital terrestrial television, which viewers will be able to pay for and receive using conventional existing television antennas.

"What is common in my experience in different countries is that there is always dissent," says Booth. "When I went to start MTV, people said MTV wouldn't work. When I went to Foxtel, they said Foxtel wouldn't work - and now they say digital won't work."

The combination of Booth's confidence and experience makes him the right person for the job, former colleagues say. "Booth is the best person I can think of for the job," says Bill Roedy, president of MTV Europe, who worked directly with Booth during his time there. "He's steady and unflappable and at the same time he has great charm."

Charm or no charm, 1999 will be the year of reckoning for BSkyB, says Horsman. That's when the results of the company's digital foray will start becoming visible. He expects earnings per share to be the same at 16p for the year to December 1999 as for this year.

BSkyB is owned 40 per cent by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, 17 per cent by Pathe SA of France, 11 per cent by Granada Group and 4.3 per cent by Pearson. The remainder is held in public hands.

Copyright: IOS & Bloomberg

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