Sky appears to have weathered the COVID-19 crisis, revealing an encouraging turnaround in its Q3 operating results, with revenue growth flat overall as each stream saw significant improvement from Q2.

Rights costs from a condensed sporting schedule began to hit EBITDA, which remains guided to fall by 60% across H2, with most of the impact in Q4. This was anticipated long ago, and Sky’s ambition remains to double 2020’s EBITDA “over the next several years”.

Having disclosed contrasting performances between its markets, Sky now appears more clearly committed to replicating its UK success in both Italy and Germany, with tangible plans in place to streamline costs and rebalance content expenditure—namely by “resetting” its spend on sports rights.

In this report, we examine the completion rates of every scripted series since 2018 across all the major UK broadcast channels.

Comparing scripted programmes across different channels by overall viewing is difficult as these numbers are affected by promotion, prominence, competition, the quality of online player UIs and availability.

The rate that series are completed—viewing of the final episode as a proportion of the first episode—eliminates these and allows comparison.

With a lack of live sport, the lockdown weighed on incumbent pay-TV platforms’ subscriptions. SVOD providers leveraged their cheap positioning—Netflix and Amazon Prime Video now rank above other subscription services in Europe, and Disney+ had a successful launch.

Incumbents—Sky, Canal+, Movistar+—all pursue a twin-track strategy. They are positioning themselves as gatekeepers thanks to service bundles, while redirecting resources away from sports towards original series.

European productions are increasingly garnering audiences outside of their home markets, regardless of the production language. Netflix is a major conduit for European exports, due to personalisation of the interface and high-quality dubbing.

The COVID-19 crisis and suspension of sport has hit Sky hard, with Q2 revenue falling 12.9% year-on-year, and EBITDA (while flat for now) expected to fall 60% in H2 as the rights costs from a condensed schedule hit the bottom line

Underlying trends are hard to discern amidst massive disruption, but the UK remains strong, and increasingly less dependent on sport, with continental Europe a work in progress to repeat this model

Longer-term initiatives continue, with new branded channel launches in the UK, broadband launched in Italy, and scope for further moves in Germany provided by significant sports rights cost savings following recent auctions

Premium sports subscriptions are the primary sector weakness in the current crisis, and they look set to drive fixed operator revenues down 10% next quarter and Sky’s EBITDA down by 60%.

As lockdown eases, latent broadband demand can be more easily sated, and sports subscriptions will bounce back from the September quarter. A surge in working-from-home is likely to increase both the quantity and quality of home broadband demand, with ‘failover’ mobile backup also likely to be of greater interest.

Openreach will benefit from accelerated demand for full fibre, converged operators will be best-placed to offer mobile backup for broadband, and operators with a strong corporate presence will most easily target demand for home-working products.

Disney’s suite of UK children’s channels will go off air in September. Disney was unable to reach a deal with Sky and Virgin for the carriage of the Disney Channel, Disney XD and Disney Junior.  

It is unsurprising that Sky and Virgin have felt able to walk away from negotiations to carry the channels—they have performed terribly over the past few years, having been well outperformed by comparable kids' channels. 

Disney will continue to have a linear footprint with National Geographic and FOX, however the cessation of its kids’ linear operations has come before its time. Disney+ is doing well, however it is a pit of foregone revenues, while the recent performance of Disney channels raises questions as to the value of some of Disney’s non-film IP.

The COVID-19 crisis is compounding the already grim revenue prospects for upcoming football rights sales in continental Europe.

The financially weakest leagues in Italy and France are especially exposed. Serie A is exploring deals with private equity firms, with the pros and cons finely balanced.

There is a window of opportunity for Sky and Canal+—the adults in the room—to build coalitions with selected clubs to nudge leagues towards needed reforms including longer licence terms, reducing the number of clubs and more equal revenue splits.

Sky posted understandably weak results for Q1, amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Revenue fell by 3.7% year-on-year, with most sports subscriptions on pause and advertising markets in shock.

The company has guided to a 60% fall in EBITDA over the next two quarters, as it bears the extra costs of a very condensed sporting schedule, but much will depend on what level of rebate it negotiates from the rightsowners for the disruption.

On screen, Sky faces similar production issues to other broadcasters, but it has continued to enhance its platform gatekeeper role and strong content offering, most recently by integrating Disney+.

The UK lockdown since mid-March has boosted TV time to levels not seen since 2014, with broadcast TV and online video each growing by nearly 40 minutes/person/day.

While trends vary significantly by demographic, news consumption has been a common catalyst for linear TV’s growth, benefitting the BBC above all. Although Sky News has also flourished, Sky’s portfolio has been seriously impacted by the lack of live sport.

2019 extended many of the long-running trends of the last decade, but, notably, online video’s growth rate appeared to slow among youngsters, in contrast to older demographics. 35-54-year-olds watching more VOD will have significant implications for linear broadcasters down the line.

When we look back at consumer expenditure on pay-TV and alternative entertainment options during past economic downturns across major countries, we find a broad confirmation of the industry’s comparative resilience.

Also found are variations between services sold through annual contracts and cancel-anytime rivals, a negative impact on big-ticket products, and opportunities for substitutional services.

Unique features in the current crisis include the suspension of sport broadcasts and an SVOD-rich offering which widens consumer options. If hardship persists, incumbents like Sky could face tougher times than during the financial crisis.