‘No limit’ to Virgin Media’s ambition for TV3, says owner Liberty Global

Liberty’s Mike Fries ‘excited’ about TV business, which won’t rule out GAA rights bid

Liberty Global chief executive Mike Fries speaking at Virgin Media Ireland’s headquarters in Dublin this week. Photograph: Julien Behal

Liberty Global chief executive Mike Fries speaking at Virgin Media Ireland’s headquarters in Dublin this week. Photograph: Julien Behal

 

Liberty Global, owner of Virgin Media, signalled it had “no limit” to its ambition for its Irish television business, saying the soon-to-rebrand TV3 Group could further extend its share of viewing and bid for more sports rights.

“Virgin Media Television already has a 20 per cent share of viewers and our goal is to drive that further,” said Liberty Global chief executive Mike Fries.

Virgin Media Ireland managing director Tony Hanway added that it would “never say never” when it comes to bidding for GAA television rights, though he noted that they were not up for auction soon.

This is the first market in which Liberty Global, which is controlled by Irish-American billionaire John Malone, will integrate a traditional television broadcaster with a pay-TV cable operation.

“We’re excited about the opportunities around cross-promotion, advanced advertising and unique content experiences for our consumers,” Mr Fries said.

He said the TV3 team at its studios in Ballymount, which Liberty executives visited on Wednesday, were “very grateful” for what had been a “very small” investment in the context of its wider capital expenditure on broadband capacity.

The Liberty Global boss revealed that it had invested €10 million to €15 million in the TV3 business to date, a relatively “modest” sum. “But it really moved the needle,” he said.

Mr Fries said he felt “very positive” about the “nice turnaround story” at Ballymount and that it was not merely the case that it would use its exclusive content as a means to add to its broadband subscriber tally.

“It needs to be successful in its own right,” he said.

Sports channel

Virgin will next month launch Virgin Media Sport, a channel that will be available to its subscribers as part of its television bundle. It will not be available through rival television platforms such as Sky, but non-Virgin subscribers can pay €20 a month to access exclusive content such as UEFA Champions League matches through an app.

On the subject of potentially winning GAA rights in future, Mr Hanway said Virgin was “always looking for interesting local content”, but that the priority at the moment was to work with what it already has. He added that he saw Virgin Media Television beating RTÉ on ratings more regularly in the future.

“What seemed impossible a few years ago now looks possible,” he said. “I would set no upper limit on our ambition.”

Virgin Media’s operation in the Republic and the UK will equate to about half Liberty Global’s business following the sale of some of its European assets to Vodafone.

“So clearly we are focused and committed to this part of the world,” said Mr Fries, who was in Dublin for Liberty Global’s annual summer board retreat.

The cable giant has in recent years faced competition from cheaper online television services such as Netflix and Amazon, but it has partnered with both, integrating Netflix’s service on to its television platform and co-funding content with Amazon.

“There are clearly challenges in the video space, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a profitable and important part of the bundle. It really is,” Mr Fries said. Liberty Global’s response to the competitive threat was not to retreat but “to lean in and invest in a better experience”.

Its new set-top box, known as Eos after the Greek goddess of the dawn, will be rolled out in the Irish market in 2019.

Brexit outlook

The company has a positive outlook on the Irish market “with or without Brexit”. However, it does not anticipate a hard Brexit.

“Over the long run we feel good about this market under any scenario. Having said that, our sense is that there will be a smoother outcome than perhaps people expect.”

Liberty Global competes with Denis O’Brien’s Digicel in several Caribbean markets. Mr Fries said he respected Mr O’Brien as an “effective and determined and aggressive” competitor.

“He is a really good operator and strong competitor and we take him very seriously.”