BSkyB's record results mask some serious issues

Problems with rivals.

At first glance, BSkyB’s annual results merit a tick in every important box. Its key metrics all moved upwards: cross-sell rate, total customer numbers, revenue and profit all showed strong growth.

In particular, BSkyB is focused on boosting its average annual revenue per customer: that metric rose by over 5 percent or £29 to £577 compared with last year. It is a sobering stat. The average Sky customer is now paying £48 per month. It is all a far cry from the early days of satellite television.

The writer is old enough and sufficiently nostalgic to recall signing up to the short-lived Sky rival, British Satellite Broadcasting at the princely rate of £10 per month. Circa 1990 – give or take. It also came complete with a relatively natty squarial dish.

Release of Sky’s results also serves as an annual reminder – at least for some of us – of just what good value the BBC offers at a fraction of the cost:  a snip at £145 per year. Back at Sky, revenues rose 7 percent year-on-year to £7.2bn; pre-tax profits rose by almost 6 per cent to £1.26bn.Customer numbers inched up a tad (by around only 34,000) to 10.4m, perhaps suggesting that the market may be nearing saturation. Sky’s response is to ramp up its efforts to grow its Now TV offering, launched as a direct rival to Netflix and Amazon’s LoveFilm.

Sky said that more than 50,000 customers have used its £9.99 per day sports ‘day pass’ on Now TV, aimed at non-Sky subscribers. Sky is also launching a Now TV set-top box for £9.99, targeted at non-Sky subscribers, enabling them to connect their TV to the internet.

Future targets for Sky include boosting its numbers of customers – currently around 35 percent - who opt to take the full bundled service of television, telephone and broadband. Officially, Sky is relaxed about the growing threat posed by rival BT.

If you believe that, you will believe anything.

A marketing war of sorts has blown up between BT and Sky. BT has spent a reported £1bn to buy sports rights for its TV service and is offering them for free to its broadband customers from August. BSkyB in turn is to offer free broadband to subscribers to its sports channels. If you believe BT and Sky’s PR teams, this means that customers are the winners.

If there is a winner out there it is the English Premier League and other sports rights holders. The cost to broadcasters of valuable sports rights continues to soar. In the markets, BT is outscoring Sky, with Sky shares down this morning by 3.5 percent to 820p; they are down almost 10 percent from a year-high of 905p.

By contrast, BT shares rose by 0.5 percent this morning to 336p and have soared by 44 percent since the turn of the year.

Two last points on Sky’s future plans. It said that it will add more channels - including 20 new channels to its catchup TV service. Just what we all need. Yet more channels. On a positive note, at a recent Digital Banking Club debate I chaired, the star-turn was a presentation from Steph Coleman, director of customer journeys for BSkyB. Coleman is on a mission, backed up with serious investment, to make Sky’s customer service experience the best in the country. Her presentation was mighty impressive; I would back her to get results.

Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.