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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 September, 2003, 09:01 GMT 10:01 UK
Tony Ball: Murdoch's solid enforcer
by Ian Youngs
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Tony Ball is to leave his 2m-a-year job as chief executive of digital broadcaster BSkyB, it has been confirmed.

BSkyB chief executive Tony Ball
Ball began his career in TV aged 16
The BBC's director general Greg Dyke recently said there were two "800 lb gorillas" in the British broadcasting industry - the BBC and BSkyB.

And, in his four years at the top of BSkyB, Tony Ball can take the credit for building up his business - and arguably keeping ITV and the cable companies out of the heavyweight division.

Mr Ball, 47, has been a solid, steady and very capable enforcer of the long-term vision held by Rupert Murdoch, BSkyB's chairman.

That vision, put simply, is domination - at least of the pay TV market.

And in the company's latest annual report, Mr Murdoch gave Mr Ball's work a glowing endorsement.

"Thanks largely to Sky, the UK now leads the world in its take-up of digital television," he wrote.

He helped BSkyB return to profit for the first time in five years
Mr Ball has put his boss's plan into practice - and in a highly competitive and risky business, that was no easy task.

His main achievements were to take BSkyB into profit for the first time in five years and take subscriber numbers up to the company's seven million target.

And he has kept hold of the TV rights for live Premiership matches - a vital attraction for many viewers.

"He's turned the business around," Rosemary Gallagher, Sky specialist at Broadcast magazine said.

And Anthony de Larrinaga, media analyst with SG Securities, said: "He's executed the strategy in an exemplary fashion."

Mr Ball has television in his blood - he began his career as an outside broadcast engineer for Thames Television after leaving school at 16.

He moved to British Satellite Broadcasting - which was swallowed up by Sky in the first satellite revolution - before having stints in sports management and at Sky Sports.

Sky Sports Digital
Some of Sky's highest ratings come from football matches
He was credited with boosting the fortunes of US channel Fox Sports International - another part of the Murdoch empire - before leaving to take the helm at BSkyB in June 1999.

"I don't just want Sky in every home - I want it watched in every home," is a famous rallying cry.

When he took over, the digital revolution was just starting and, although Sky was in a strong position, its fortunes had been on a rollercoaster during the previous decade.

There were big challenges ahead and - as ITV Digital, cable companies and other European multi-channel broadcasters showed - it was easier to fail than to succeed.

Mr Ball had to persuade its viewers with the original analogue satellite service to switch to digital - and keep them happy in the process.

Not only did he do that, but they are spending more and fewer are leaving the service than ever.

Mr Ball was viewed "very highly" by the industry, Ms Gallagher said.

Sky One doesn't have any really great talked-about programmes
Rosemary Gallagher
Broadcast magazine
"I think he's more focused on the share price, keeping the city happy and getting more subscribers on board than creating great programming," she said.

For viewers, there has been a huge increase in choice on the Sky platform - but little in the way of successful original programming.

Its flagship channel, Sky One, is still packed with repeats of The Simpsons, Buffy and Star Trek plus series like Ibiza Uncovered.

"Sky One doesn't have any really great talked-about programmes or any home-grown successes," Ms Gallagher said.

That was something Mr Ball tried to change in a recent speech to persuade the BBC to auction off its most popular programmes to commercial rivals.

That did not go down too well - but Sky may yet get its own hits after appointing Dawn Airey, who led Five, formerly Channel Five, to respect and stability, to oversee its programming.

Mr Ball had come to think of himself as a successful boss in his own right
Andrew Neil
Former BSkyB chairman
"The numbers speak for themselves," Mr de Larrinaga said.

"Ultimately the responsibility is [his] to make sure that people who ring up get boxes and dishes installed when it's convenient to them so they're satisfied customers.

"And he's managed to fend off the regulators and the politicians - which is not always the easiest task."

When BSkyB's latest financial results came out, media analyst Matthew Marsden wrote that they were "simply brilliant".

And an editorial in industry magazine Media Week said they demanded "unreserved recognition".


BSkyB's "notoriously ruthless" negotiations could never be described as "nice", the magazine said - but it had performed better than any other British media company.

But former BSkyB chairman Andrew Neil said Mr Ball may have outgrown his position as Mr Murdoch's loyal servant.

"Mr Ball had come to think of himself as a successful boss in his own right," he said - which was a fatal mistake for even the most valued Murdoch executive.

Mr Ball had every right to think he was his own man but had become "less inclined to do his master's bidding", Mr Neil said.

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