Skyrocketing subs

BSkyB leads pack with 1.2 mil digital subs

LONDON — British Sky Broadcasting has signed up 1.2 million digital subscribers, exceeding expectations and placing the satcaster well ahead of the pack in the U.K.’s white-hot digital TV market.

Investment in the SkyDigital platform, however, drove BSkyB into the red with a pretax loss of £388 million ($624.7 million) for the year ending July 31. Last year, the company posted a pretax profit of $436 million. Sales were up 8% to 1.54 billion.

Of the digital customers, 515,000, or 43%, were new, as opposed to migrants from analog. In July, 55% of take-up was new. Both BSkyB and rival ONdigital, a terrestrial platform owned by ITV network companies Carlton and Granada, began giving away their set-top boxes in May. ONdigital is believed to have close to 350,000 subscribers.

In limelight

The results put BSkyB’s new chief exec Tony Ball in the spotlight for the first time since he replaced Mark Booth, who left two months ago to head News Corp.’s Internet business, epartners. News Corp. owns 40% of BSkyB.

On continued speculation that BSkyB may merge or somehow pact with France’s Canal Plus — rumors triggered by Canal Plus’ major shareholder Vivendi increasing its stake in BSkyB to 24.5% — Ball said there were no talks, and added that there are also “no planned co-operations with Canal Plus.”

Ball said he now expected that all BSkyB’s analog subs would be shifted to digital well before the previous target date of December 2002 and outlined how BSkyB intends to ward off competition from ONdigital and cable operator NTL, which is due to begin rolling out its digital platform next month. Many observers view digital cable as the biggest threat to SkyDigital’s growth.

Sky Box Office, the satcaster’s pay-per-view service, will be expanded from 48 to 72 feeds. There also will be greater emphasis on original programming. Sky Pictures, the film production division, has completed six features to be seen first on the Sky Premier channel and then be distributed theatrically in other territories.

BSkyB also announced that it had signed Harry Enfield, one of Britain’s top comedians, to make the sketch series “The People’s Harry Enfield” for Sky Premier. His shows usually air on BBC1. BSkyB said it also has a project in development with Fox in the U.S.

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