Sky launches low-cost, mobile-only version of Fanpass

PLUS: Android TV, Netflix and maybe even a Lightbox app are in the company's future.
Sky TV chief product and technology officer Jason Wheeler: 12 months since the last Sky Go issue

UPDATE / June 6: Sky TV confirms it is launching a low-cost, mobile-only version of Fanpass — its no-contract service that offers streaming versions of Sky Sports channel content.

Earlier (see below) departing chief executive John Fellet told NBR the service would be designed to reach a new, younger audience.

He said research indicated "$15 is the magic number", but the new service will cost $16 a month (or $15.99, to be exact). That's still a cheap discount on the $100 a month (or $55/month if you commit to six months) full-blooded version of Fanpass.

The Sky boss says the mobile version of Fanpass will not run on tablets, only smartphones, and that it will not support streaming to a television (although the tech-savvy will try to plug their phone into their TV, which can be done with some models).

Better-positioned for mobile-only sports deals
Beyond appealing to people who would never take a Sky subscription, Fanpass Mobile also positions the pay-TV provider better for future sports rights negotiations — especially given the trend we've seen overseas for sports bodies to sell mobile rights separately to maximise revenue; the NRL being a key case in point.

News of Fanpass Mobile comes on the heels of a hook up with Spark that will see Spark customers on an unlimited data plan offered the full version of Fanpass for just $30 a month.

NZFC analyst Arie Dekker says it's likely Sky TV is wholesaling Fanpass to Spark for $40 a month, then subsidising the service to allow its customers to access it for $30.

EARLIER / April 6: Sky TV [NZX:SKT] has pepped up the iOS and Android versions of Sky Go – which both get the on-demand viewing feature previously only available for desktop users, plus more entertainment content.

Sky Go is free for Sky TV subscribers, and can be used on either a phone or tablet.

The upgraded version should be available from Apple and Google’s app stores from Monday.

There will be 26 live channels, catch-up content from 30 channels, plus 80 seasons of boxed-set shows on-demand (see the full content and feature set here).

Sky Go has been infamously temperamental in the past, with social media imploding on various occasions as its livestream has choked in the middle of various major sports events.

However, Sky chief product and technology officer Julian Wheeler says there hasn’t been a major Sky Go incident for 12 months.

Mr Wheeler says there is no re-platforming concurrent with the upgrade released Monday. It has been more a case of continually tweaking the way Sky Go content is served, he says.

ABOVE: The upgraded Sky Go app glitched a couple of times when NBR was given a quick preview. But, touch wood, everything will be in shape for its release on Monday.

BELOW: An offical pic of the upgraded app

In a briefing to media, Mr Wheeler and other Sky TV executives also delivered a boiled-down version of the company’s recent investor day presentation (and reiterated a number of the points made by departing chief executive John Fellet in a recent NBR Radio interview) and the company's AGM presentation.

The pay-TV provider plans an upgrade to its Sky Box, which will add a fluid graphics interface and recommendations, giving it a similar look and feel to Netflix, Lightbox or Vodafone TV.

About 40% of Sky TV decoders will be able to receive the upgrade over-the-air. It will be opt-in, so customers who want to stick with the old interface will be able to do so (Sky having learned from the backlash to its Sky On Demand interface).

For those who don’t have a Sky box new enough to receive the upgrade, there will be a new decoder, which will also add the ability to receive broadcasts over UFB fibre rather than via satellite. (Although it will be moving its centre of gravity toward fibre, Sky will also keep its satellite option for the foreseeable future.)

There will also be an Apple TV-style “puck,” a small piece of hardware that will be aimed at those who are happy to get all of their Sky TV and other content via the internet only.

The puck will run on Google's Android TV operating system (already used by Sony and LG smart TVs, among other gadgets).

Netflix, Amazon, Lightbox apps
As with Vodafone TV, already on the market from close marketing partner Vodafone, Sky will also move to support third-party apps.

The investor day and media presentation shows Netflix, Amazon Prime, Bein Sports, Spotify and Spark’s Lightbox as examples of third-party apps that could sit side by side with Sky TV content.

This is radical concept for Sky, but not in the industry at large. Apple TV and Amazon’s Fire TV have long featured both their own content and apps for accessing TV series and video from others. The idea is that in this streaming age, people will be constantly dabbling with different services — and it's better if they do it from with a platform you control, the better to promote your own content.

Sky's next upgrade will dispense with today's grid in favour of a more visual interface, a la Vodafone TV, Netflix, Lightbox, its own Neon and others.

The apps were there for illustrative purposes only. Sky and Spark have no app deal today. Sky TV strategy director George Macfarlane says he would have no problem including Lightbox as the service stands today (in April, Lightbox is due to get an upgrade that will expand its content from TV series only to movies too. A re-platforming at the same time will mean Lightbox will be able to support streaming of live events and pay-per-view too. Spark and TVNZ are rumoured to be the preferred bidders for the 2019 Rugby World Cup).

Sky says it will release at least one of the above products in about 12 months, and all of them in 18 months. An app-only version of Sky’s also on the way.

At one point, Vodafone — heavily into the internet-delivered video market in Europe, and one of the pioneers in features such as cloud-based recording, or the ability to "record" an unlimited number of channels, and reverse programming guides, which allow you browse a guide then watch any content from the past week on-demand. When the proposed merge folded, after 18 months of lost product development time, Sky expanded its partnership with Cisco to gain access to similar technologies.

Cheaper Neon, mobile sport
Sky also confirms Mr Fellet’s earlier hint that a cheaper version of Neon is on the way, which will feature TV series only.

And a mobile-only sports streaming app is on the way. In his NBR Radio interview, Mr Fellet indicated the low-cost service could be priced at about $15 a month.

Chief financial officer Jason Hollingworth says Sky is now seeking all-platform rights for on every content deal. It achieved that with its recently renewed HBO content but he also stresses Sky will not pay any price to secure streaming rights.

On a similar theme, the company’s director of sport, Richard Last, says Sky is primarily focused on season-long competitions. The media briefing was told it did not make sense to bid huge amounts of money for tournaments that only lasted a few weeks, an obvious reference to the broadcaster’s recent loss of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

NBR’s broad take: Sky TV’s upgrade strategy looks solid. It just would have been better if it had embarked on it five years ago.

All content copyright NBR. Do not reproduce in any form without permission, even if you have a paid subscription.

POSTSCRIPT: Vodafone TV's progress

Vodafone NZ's Vodafone TV, sports many of the features that are in Sky TV's pipeline, from fluid visuals to cloud-based recording to offering apps from third parties.

So how is it working out? Sky TV, which provides the build of Vodafone TV's content via a wholesale deal, won't say. Neither will Vodafone, citing "commercial sensitivity."

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