INTERVIEW

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Business & Appointments - - FRONT PAGE -

THREE years ago there was up­roar among sports fans when it emerged that Sky had bought the rights to a raft of hurl­ing and foot­ball games. The air­waves were filled with scep­ti­cal dis­cus­sions about the UK com­pany’s abil­ity to cover GAA, and some fans ea­gerly awaited for its cov­er­age to fall flat on its face. JD Buck­ley, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Sky Ire­land, was un­per­turbed by the con­tro- versy.

“We know what we are good at,” says Buck­ley from the com­pany’s airy Dublin 4 head­quar­ters. “We have a de­cent pedi­gree, so I wasn’t ner­vous at all. I knew we would do a fine job, and I knew we would treat our na­tional games with the ut­most re­spect and in­tegrity. Hope­fully view­ers will see that’s ex­actly what we do. We play the ball, not the man.”

For Buck­ley, a huge sports fan, it was a big win for the Ir­ish busi­ness. It showed a com­mit­ment to the Ir­ish mar­ket, which has grown sig­nif­i­cantly since he joined in 2012. When he started, Sky em­ployed 40 peo­ple here. Now it has close to 1,000 staff.

While RTE and other broad­cast­ing in­sid­ers some­times ar­gue that Sky takes ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue out of Ire­land with­out giv­ing much back, Sky points out that it does in­vest here.

“I think the fact that we have done a ground­break­ing deal with the GAA just shows you how se­ri­ous we are about it,” he says of this mar­ket. “I think our cus­tomers are find­ing the level of anal­y­sis and pro­fes­sion­al­ism we are bring­ing to the cov­er­age has upped ev­ery­one’s game.

“We’re fight­ing to win hearts and minds with the GAA cov­er­age each sea­son. What we find is it just works great for us, be­cause the Premier League ends in May — just as the GAA sea­son is kick­ing off. And hav­ing 14 ex­clu­sive games means that it is great tim­ing in terms of keep­ing our sub­scribers.”

In an­other win for Sky’s Ir­ish busi­ness, the com­pany has now com­mit­ted to spend­ing €2m on Ir­ish pro­gram­ming. “It’s a big bud­get in an Ir­ish con­text and for us at this point,” says Buck­ley. “We have had great suc­cess with Moone Boy, we did 50 Ways To Kill Your Mammy with Baz (Ash­mawy) and both shows were in­ter­na­tional Emmy award-win­ners, which was great for us. We felt it was time to kick on again.

“In re­cent months, Zai Ben­nett, di­rec­tor of pro­grammes at Sky En­ter­tain­ment, and other com­pany ex­ec­u­tives vis­ited Dublin. They have done sev­eral days with the lo­cal in­de­pen­dent pro­duc­tion houses at this point and we wanted to for­malise it, put a fund in place and go out for­mally look­ing for pitches, which we have done.

“All the in­de­pen­dent pro­duc­ers have that now, and they have un­til the end of Oc­to­ber to come back and pitch ideas and, re­ally, we are look­ing for the next big hit for Sky One. We view this as the start, rather than a one-off.” Sky One is un­der­go­ing a re-brand in the next few weeks. “We’re kind of grow­ing up Sky One a lit­tle bit,” says Buck­ley. “We’re go­ing to have great shows, Mod­ern Fam­ily, The Simp­sons, etc... But post-wa­ter­shed, we want to make it a lit­tle bit edgier.”

Now five years into the job, Buck­ley has seen how broad­cast­ing has changed dra­mat­i­cally. Lin­ear view­ing is on the wane, and peo­ple are in­creas­ingly choos­ing when and how they want to view con­tent.

“We’re in an era where con­tent is ab­so­lutely king,” he says. “There is a great thirst from con­sumers for con­tent and it is up to us as con­tent de­vel­op­ers to en­sure we are of­fer­ing the best con­tent to peo­ple who choose to pay for Sky ev­ery day. It has to be con­tent worth pay­ing for.

“So you’ll see from Sky At­lantic we have a very, very clear vi­sion of what we want that chan­nel to be. It’s the very best of the US and then big-bud­get epic drama.

“The way we think of con­tent has be­come very dif­fer­ent. Pre­vi­ously, we would have taken a more scat­ter-gun ap­proach.”

The broad­caster is learning from the likes of Net­flix, putting out new se­ries all at once, in­stead of over sev­eral weeks.

“We are try­ing to be very fo­cused and go with a cou­ple of big shows a quar­ter and re­ally get be­hind them,” he says. The next big Sky Orig­i­nal show is Tin Star, with Tim Roth and Ir­ish ac­tress Genevieve O’reilly.

Buck­ley is the old­est son of Leslie Buck­ley, a long-time busi­ness as­so­ciate of De­nis O’brien and chair­man of In­de­pen­dent News & Me­dia, which pub­lishes this news­pa­per. He spent his first six years in Cork and then moved to Dublin. “I sup­port the Dubs, but I am slightly con­fused, as I am a Mun­ster rugby sup­porter,” he says.

Busi­ness was al­ways in his blood. “I come from an en­tre­pre­neur­ial fam­ily,” he says. “My grand­dad set up a floor-cov­er­ing busi­ness in Cork. It was one of the old­est fam­ily busi­nesses in Cork at one point. And, clearly, my dad has been in­volved in busi­ness all his life.”

After school, he stud­ied eco­nomics in UCD and then com­pleted an MBA in the Uni­ver­sity of Ul­ster. He then joined Coop­ers and Ly­brand, which later be­came PWC, and then went into man­age­ment con­sul­tancy.

“That al­lowed me to cut my teeth in var­i­ous dif­fer­ent projects, from Gov­ern­ment sec­toral stud­ies to strat­egy plans for pri­vate sec­tor busi­nesses,” says Buck­ley. “It was a great breadth of ex­pe­ri­ence.”

In 2003, he went to work in Dig­i­cel, O’brien’s tele­coms com­pany. “It was great,” says Buck­ley. “I had just got mar­ried (to wife Fleur) and we went to the Car­ib­bean. It’s a great busi­ness, it was go­ing through a mas­sive growth phase.”

Buck­ley spent five years there, build­ing up the brand in the north Car­ib­bean, but a re­turn to Ire­land beck­oned.

“We had two kids when we were there and de­cided it was time to head home and bring up the fam­ily,” he says.

At this stage, Buck­ley was keen to go it alone, set­ting up an in­terim man­age­ment con­sul­tancy.

“Then the Sky op­por­tu­nity came along, and I just jumped at it, be­cause it’s a phe­nom­e­nal com­pany which has a great his­tory of in­no­va­tion, with a big brand, and ex­tremely well-run.

“And it was go­ing through a big growth phase, which is right up my street.”

Buck­ley was tasked with ramp­ing up the com­pany’s op­er­a­tion in Ire­land. “My re­mit was what could we do in Ire­land to re­ally step-change in our pres­ence,” he says. “To grow the num­ber of em­ploy­ees, launch broad­band, dou­ble down on con­tent through things like Moone Boy. To me, that was so com­pelling.

“For me, con­tent is so fan­tas­tic. I love watch­ing con­tent, peo­ple love talk­ing about con­tent…we’re not mak­ing wid­gets, TV is some­thing peo­ple are en­gaged with. I am into my sport, so be­ing sur­rounded by sports is fan­tas­tic.”

Sky launched a new prod­uct this year, Now TV, which al­lows peo­ple to sign up for a month at a time or for dif­fer­ent sports events. There was a big mar­ket­ing push on dur­ing the re­cent Game Of Thrones se­ries to get cus­tomers to sign up.

“Now TV gives po­ten­tial cus­tomers the op­por­tu­nity to dip in and out of Sky con­tent,” says Buck­ley.

He says that the com­pany is very happy with its per­for­mance. It tar­gets the ‘ straight to stream­ing’ gen­er­a­tion, who have dif­fer­ent view­ing pat­terns, while its more so­phis­ti­cated Sky Q prod­uct is aimed at the other end of the mar­ket.

While Sky is fo­cus­ing on con­tent, other broad­cast­ers are do­ing like­wise. RTE, for ex­am­ple, is fight­ing for the in­tro­duc­tion of re­trans­mis­sion fees, which would see Sky pay for the right to carry RTE. The pub­lic ser­vice sta­tion ar­gues that the most pop­u­lar pro­grammes on the Sky box are RTE shows.

Sky strongly re­jects this pro­posal. “RTE look­ing to charge plat­forms for con­tent that is free-to-air is truly RTE want­ing its cake and eat­ing it,” he says.

“Our po­si­tion is very sim­ple. RTE de­rives a lot of ben­e­fit from be­ing on the Sky plat­form. Nielsen rat­ings would say that we are in over 40pc of Ir­ish homes and as a re­sult of that, RTE is de­riv­ing ben­e­fit from reach into those homes and prob­a­bly over €30m of ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue due to its prom­i­nent po­si­tion on our Elec­tronic Pro­gram­ming Guide.”

Sky and other plat­forms will go be­fore the Oireach­tas Com- mit­tee on Com­mu­ni­ca­tions on Oc­to­ber 3 to dis­cuss this and other pos­si­ble changes to broad­cast­ing leg­is­la­tion.

RTE is also eye­ing Sky’s ad­ver­tis­ing busi­ness, which sells com­mer­cials on be­half of UK chan­nels, which are avail­able in Ire­land. There have been calls for a levy on this ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue to bol­ster the Ir­ish broad­cast­ing sec­tor.

Buck­ley ar­gues that this ad­ver­tis­ing is com­ple­men­tary to RTE, rather than a com­peti­tor. “We are hit­ting a de­mo­graphic which wouldn’t be served tra­di­tion­ally for RTE or TV3,” he says.

“It’s slightly more ur­ban, up­mar­ket de­mo­graphic. Be­cause we don’t have the reach that the ter­res­tri­als would have, we can’t charge the same level as them. There­fore, we are pro­vid­ing im­por­tant reach as part of an over­all cam­paign.”

Sky’s ad busi­ness is per­form­ing well, slightly out­per­form­ing the mar­ket, which will be down in sin­gle dig­its this year.

Sky’s next-gen­er­a­tion ad ser­vice, Ads­mart, has been up and run­ning since May. It is run­ning cam­paigns for around 20 ad­ver­tis­ers to date, tai­lor­ing the ads to the viewer pro­files.

“It’s go­ing well so far, and we’re con­tin­u­ously hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions with clients both di­rectly and through agen­cies about how TV can work for their com­mu­ni­ca­tion mix,” he says.

In the UK, Sky has re­cently launched a mo­bile phone of­fer­ing. “It’s early days, but we are very happy with the progress. And we are keep­ing an eye on the Ir­ish mar­ket,” he says. “We have no con­crete plans at this point.”

Dixons Car­phone is sell­ing its Ir­ish mo­bile busi­ness ID. Surely this might be an op­por­tu­nity for Sky here? “I can’t com­ment on specifics in re­la­tion to Car­phone,” says Buck­ley.

“Suf­fice to say, we have good re­la­tion­ships with all the mo­bile net­work op­er­a­tors and we are keep­ing on eye on the UK at this stage.” He has been pleased with its broad­band launch here. “We came into a mar­ket which was re­ally dom­i­nated by Vir­gin and Eir. When we came into the mar­ket, we were the fastest-grow­ing and we con­tinue to be the fastest-grow­ing quar­ter in, quar­ter out since 2013.

“We launched fi­bre in 2014 and next year, we launch fi­bre to the home. That will mean speed of up to a gi­ga­byte.

“And re­ally, broad­band is pro­vid­ing us with an ex­tra prod­uct which in­creases average rev­enue per user. But also, cus­tomers who take triple play from us are less likely to leave.”

For Buck­ley, that fur­ther en­trenches Sky’s po­si­tion in Ire­land. “While some of our com­peti­tors are go­ing off­shore with their ser­vices, we have taken a slightly dif­fer­ent tack.

“We want to get even closer to our cus­tomers.”

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