Saturday 21 October 2017

Sky Ireland keeping it close to home

JD Buckley wants Sky Ireland to be connected to its customers and, with a focus on content, he hopes Irish TV producers can deliver a hit show

JD Buckley, managing director of SKY Ireland. Photo: Steve Humphreys
JD Buckley, managing director of SKY Ireland. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Samantha McCaughren

Samantha McCaughren

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 controversy.

"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 Committee 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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