John McLellan: Sky's customer delight could help Rupert Murdoch

The customer complaints report from the UK government's media watchdog Ofcom published last week illustrates how unpredictable paid-for TV services can be; and it's troubling reading for BT but good news for Sky.

Sky's customer service track record could play into Rupert Murdoch's hands, writes John McLellan. Picture: Chris Radburn/PA Wire
Sky's customer service track record could play into Rupert Murdoch's hands, writes John McLellan. Picture: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

BT has long used sport as a marketing vehicle, sponsoring Hampden Park for many years until it switched to Murrayfield, and now its sports TV service is designed as a major revenue stream in its own right.

It paid almost £1.2 billion to extend its Champions League football coverage by three years to 2021, a third more than its current three-year deal and reportedly three times what Sky and ITV were paying before BT took over for the 2014-15 season.

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For this BT was rewarded with just 150,000 customers for one of Leicester’s matches last season and unsurprisingly Uefa is said to be concerned about the lack of exposure. It might also be concerned about the number of customer complaints, with Ofcom receiving 19 complaints per 100,000 customers in the first quarter of 2017.

That might seem a small number, but not when compared with competitors; Virgin Media was next at nine, followed by TalkTalk on seven and the big sports rival Sky with just two.

Given these are only the issues which have got as far as the regulator, it’s fair to assume there are many, many more complaints which don’t show up in these statistics. BT’s record is notably inconsistent, with the number of complaints ranging from 25 per 100,000 in the third quarter of 2015 and bobbing up and down to average around 17 every quarter since.

Sky, with call centres in Glasgow, Uddingston, Livingston and Dunfermline, has never recorded more than two in any period since early 2015. Why this matters is the probability that UK culture secretary Karen Bradley will ask the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) to rule over the potential £12bn purchase by Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox of the 61 per cent of Sky it currently doesn’t own.

The Murdoch family owns 39 per cent of Sky, its stake since BskyB was floated in 1994, and as the biggest single shareholder is effectively in control. So the comparatively good customer satisfaction results will be an advantage when it comes to any negotiation with the CMA.

Ofcom has said it has no concerns about 21st Century Fox and broadcast standards, so the issue is the impact of Sky-News UK’s potential control of 10 per cent of the UK news market, with a reach of 31 per cent of all UK adults.

Anti-Murdoch spleens are already being vented, but the BBC’s 77 per cent reach on a 42 per cent control of the UK news market must surely be worthy of the same Ofcom scrutiny.

• John McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society and a City of Edinburgh Conservative councillor