Times Online: Supporting the big profits of pay TV

So Times Newspapers has just hired Paul Gilshan from BSkyB as marketing director. Gilshan was previously head of marketing for Sky Movies and Sky Box Office. At Wapping, Media Week notes, Gilshan will be reunited with his former boss Alex Lewis, who was a director of marketing at BSkyB before moving across to Times Newspapers last year.

Another significant (and much-noted) arrival at Wapping: Gurtej Sandhu, who is joining as director of Times Digital from News Corp-owned Star TV.

Down under, the trends seem similar: Richard Freudenstein, whose CV includes a seven year stint at BSkyB, has just been made chief executive of The Australian.

The influx of pay-TV types is striking. Of course, there’s an existing line of thought which suggests that paywalls around the Times and the Sunday Times will be engineered to boost print sales as much as anything else. (Buy a newsprint subscription and get access on t’internet for free.)

But what if the cordon was thrown wider? Peter Preston may have a point when he suggests that BSkyB could be brought into equation.

Now watch closely as 12 million Sky subscribers get an offer they can’t reasonably refuse. How about beyond-the-wall access to four big British papers (plus an array of tempting other goodies) for as little as 50p extra a month? £6m a month for that is £72m – in a trice the losses on Wapping’s more upmarket offerings are turned to profit. . .

This is an interesting idea. It would certainly enhance the attractiveness of Sky for subscribers who might be lured away soon by cheaper footie elsewhere. In addition, News Corp could bolt on newspaper subscriptions for a triple-play subscription offer (Sky/newspapers/online access).

Sky has been selling consumers a triple-play of its own (broadband/telephony/pay TV) for quite a while: the executives making the switch to Wapping know all about the fiddly mechanics of maximising profits in this kind of environment.

But if News International goes down this route, what price the coalition of national newspapers that Murdoch wanted to assemble last year?

That plan is dead in the water. It’s no coincidence that Murdoch’s thinly-veiled appeals for a concerted uprising against the free web have died away.

The Guardian can’t see how the economics stack up (no surprises there, if the missing ingredient is 12m viewers). The Telegraph has all but ruled itself out. DMGT has maintained a studied silence. Trinity Mirror might follow News International, but only if convinced by results on the ground.

A subscription link between Sky and News International would be designed to limit the risks of a go-it-alone policy. Harnessing the huge popularity of Sky might well make the unpalatable idea of paid content acceptable to the general public. (And for rivals, doing deals with Virgin Media or BT Vision really wouldn’t be the same).

But 50p a month: surely that’s too little? Selling online access to the Times and the Sunday Times at something like that price would cannibalize print copy sales just as rapidly as free access on the web.

Perhaps the low price point owes something to Preston’s inspiration: Newsday, owned by the same company that sells cable TV and broadband to 75% of Long Island’s subscribers. Late last year, Newsday erected a $5-a-week paywall. But it offered free access to customers of the parent company’s cable and broadband operations.

The parallel isn’t straightforward, though. Newsday’s paywall might as well have been accompanied by a suicide note declaring that the paper had no value other than as a gimmick intended to sell something else. Times Newspapers Ltd may be losing north of £1m a week, but its position is slightly different.

Still, leveraging what you’ve got makes sense. Cross-selling TV and news subscriptions would involve giving Murdoch’s newspapers – unloved by investors – a new purpose in life: to support the profitability of pay TV.

Circle the wagons and find some new and unexpected synergy: it’s a classic media conglomerate tactic. If successful, It might even help to convince News Corp’s investors that owning both newspapers and a pay TV platform remains a sensible idea.

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