Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

From connectivity to content

By Kate Bulkley

Broadcast News

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For Broadcast October 20, 2016

Liberty is switching strategy to keep up with rivals, says Kate Bulkley

For years, Virgin Media owner Liberty Global believed that connectivity was king. Now it’s not so sure.

Liberty has been rolling out a new, expanded approach to content, commissioning four drama series from part-owned All3Media and securing a multiyear deal for all Discovery-owned channels across its markets.

It owns stakes in free-to-air broadcasters, including ITV in the UK, and has been buying into niche sports - taking stakes in Formula E auto racing and, only last month, in kickboxing events organiser Glory Sports International.

Bruce Mann, a long-time TV executive in Australia who joined Liberty as managing director of programming earlier this year, is driving the new content push.

“I left a TV company and joined a telecommunications company,” he quipped at Mipcom this week. “‘Connectivity-first’ has been our unique selling point in the marketplace and having a ‘me-too’ video proposition as part of that was fine.”

But Mann knows that times are changing. Rising competition from telcos like BT, rival pay-TV companies like Sky and subscription video-on-demand players such as Netflix has caused a huge rethink. “We are evolving our content proposition,” Mann said.

Liberty is still a telecoms-driven company, but the rules of TV aggregation and distribution are changing radically - driven not least by the galloping growth in over-the-top services led by Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.

Mann is a TV guy who realises the pull of exclusive, high-profile content, but he also works for Liberty, which is keen to limit its risk profi le. He has no intention of matching Netflix pound for pound on original commissions. “Our approach is strategic and surgical,” he said. “We are not going to get into an arms race with Netflix.” Indeed, Liberty recently signed a deal to offer the SVoD service across its pay-TV services in Europe.

This week, Netflix stunned the markets with betterthan- expected subscriber uptake. Now with 83 million subscribers, the SVoD service revealed it will increase its content spending to $6bn (£4.9bn) in 2017 from $5bn (£4bn) this year, making its budget bigger than any traditional media player bar Disney-owned ESPN.

Netflix drives brand awareness and subscriptions by leveraging its commissions and is planning its biggest-ever marketing campaign for the 4 November launch of the $100m (£80m) Left Bank Pictures-produced drama The Crown.

It’s a crowded field: new SVoD services are being rolled out every week, while some are closing, including Canada’s Showmi. Lionsgate, in which Liberty Global owns a $400m (£325m) stake with Discovery, has launched three OTT services in rapid succession.

So far, Liberty has made no direct “big bets” on OTT. Its push into content is about creating a “distinction proposition”, including how content is served to its customers. Mann describes Liberty’s “killer app” as its seven-day backwards EPG, which converts linear viewing into an on-demand proposition.

All well and good, but the new big thing is personalistion, with content served to your individual profile, Spotify-style. It seems to me that relying on the EPG, however good, is not going to be enough.

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