The Branson Murdoch match: Skirmishes in the opening rounds

April 13, 2007

Sky TV and Virgin Media head for the high court in the opening skirmishes of their contest. Young master Murdoch of Sky defends charges from the charismatic Richard Branson of Virgin Media. The battle will test the charge that BSkyB abused its market position in imposing new charges for some of its services to Virgin Media. The dispute has deprived customers of programmes, and is costing both companies in advertising revenues.

The wider battle can be traced to the relatively recent formation (in April 2006) of Virgin Media, from the ailing NTL cable company. The move was presented as a strategic one which would offer a bundle of services to users. It brought the new company into more direct competition with Sky. Competition in this emerging multi-media context is intricately mixed up with inter-dependence, as services are shared and traded.

Sky promptly acquiring a minority stake in ITV (November 2006). This was seen as a protective strike, as ITV was a take-over target for the newly formed Virgin Media. Branson mutters about spoiling tactics.

Claims and counter-claims followed. For viewers, the spat became serious when Sky and Virgin Media failed to resolve a dispute over re-negotiated charges requested by Sky. Customers of Virgin Media were deprived of the disputed bundle of Sky programmes previously accessed through the former NTL cable service.

Branson versus Murdoch?

It is tempting to portray the dispute as a strategic battle between Richard Branson of Virgin Media and James Murdoch of Sky. If so, the story inevitably presents James Murdoch as Rupert Murdoch’s son and heir apparent.

The reality is more complex. James is the youngest of three Murdoch offspring to a previous marriage. His sister Elisabeth seems the sparkiest of the three, but both she and brother Lachlan seem to have sought more independence, and have broken with promising roles within Murdoch’s media empire. But there may be other candidates to succeed father Rupert, who also has potential heirs from a more recent marriage.

Young James seems to have had a somewhat rumbustious time in his formative years (hardly surprising). His roles in the family firm have been conducted with inevitable publicity. Progress has been swift (hardly surprising). Results have been not totally convincing, but public skepticism has been somewhat weakened through his evidential touch in leading the BSkyB business.

And in the opposite corner …

Richard Branson. Media darling, celebrated entrepreneur, self-publicist, philanthropist , billionaire, business icon. If he wanted it, his catch-phrase for a TV series would be not ‘you’re fired’, but ‘hang around, there’s a party going on here’.

The battle would seem a non-contest, if we were not aware that young James still has his dad, that gnarled old warrior of a hundred successful battles, in his corner.

So what’s going to happen?

Financial sanity will prevail sooner or later. Any battle of the egos will have less ultimate significance than the realities of the bottom lines. The relatively narrow issue of the renegotiated charges for the Sky channels on Virgin Mobile will be resolved, perhaps by a creative bit of face-saving on both sides. Even in the jungle, most fights are biologically programmed so that there is no ultimate victor and fatally wounded loser.