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Sky CEO put on notice by chunky vote against salary share scheme

Thursday 17th October 2019

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Sky Network Television chief executive Martin Stewart was put on notice by disgruntled shareholders today, with a sizeable vote against the share scheme of his pay package. 

The key vote to effectively sign-off on the in-principle deal with New Zealand Rugby reached over the weekend passed with 99.9 percent support, and the equity component of Sky TV's RugbyPass acquisition also received a strong endorsement with 98.4 percent voting in favour. Both transactions dilute existing shareholdings, with NZ Rugby getting 21.8 million shares and RugbyPass Investors 25.1 million shares. 

However, a resolution to issue 800,000 share rights to Stewart passed but met stiff opposition with 25.6 percent voted against.

Provided he continues to work for Sky, he would be able to exercise 200,000 rights at no cost on the first four anniversaries of his employment without any other hurdles to meet. 

"That is quite a significant vote against - I suspect that will put them, to a degree, on notice and that performance will be watched rather closely by investors," said Matt Goodson, managing director at Salt Funds Management. 

Had the resolution had been blocked, the company would have sought to meet Stewart's share scheme through other means, either paying cash or hiring a broker to buy shares on market. 

Stewart's election to the board didn't face similar opposition and achieved 99.9 percent support. 

The shares were recently unchanged at $1.07, having slumped about 42.2 percent so far this year. 

Sky chair Philip Bowman - another new recruit - told shareholders at today's annual meeting that the company was lucky to have a chief executive of Stewart's calibre. 

"He is implementing an ambitious programme of change and innovation, and he has an unrelenting focus on returning the business to growth. It’s been very pleasing to see the significant progress made by the team in the first seven months of Martin’s tenure," he said. 

Stewart has been stamping his mark on the pay-TV operator since he took over the reins earlier this year, putting greater emphasis on streaming services and ensuring it retained the rugby broadcasting rights after being outbid by aggressive newcomer Spark New Zealand. 

Goodson said keeping the rugby rights was absolutely essential, but losing the likes of New Zealand Cricket's broadcasting rights made it harder to offer a bundled product. 

"It's very difficult for them to charge a bundled price when significant rights lie elsewhere," he said. 

Bowman said winning the rugby rights was critical to a strategy of retaining the rights that matter. 

"We understand the important balance between what our customers want to watch (and what they are willing to pay), what our content partners need for their businesses to be profitable, and our need to make wise trade-off choices that in the long term provide a commercial return to you, our shareholders," he said. 

Stewart told the meeting that recent rights wins might have sounded sports-centric, but that the company was also focused on securing entertainment rights "that matter to our customers." 

Matt Henry, an analyst at Forsyth Barr, said sports rights are a key component to differentiate a product compared with other entertainment. He cited the widespread uptake of Netflix and looming entry of streaming services from Disney and Apple to illustrate the difficulties in pursuing general entertainment content. 

"That entertainment space is highly competitive and you're competing against global players with massive scale, so sport is a more localised product globally," Henry said.

"The sport preferences of every country is different, so that's where you've got to focus the business long-term."

Stewart said the company was also "genuinely open to wholesale and partnering", which Henry said would be more akin to bundled packages with utilities providers.                            

Sky's strong grip on sports broadcasting rights and the lack of a wholesale market was one of the reasons the Commerce Commission rejected a deal that would have seen the pay-TV operator merge with Vodafone New Zealand

Television New Zealand, which joined Spark as a free-to-air partner in the telco's successful Rugby World Cup and NZ Cricket rights bids, said it's open to sports content partnerships. 

"Some events make sense for TVNZ to pursue alone, like the forthcoming America’s Cup but others need a partner with deeper pockets, a pay operator," a spokeswoman said. 

"Our viewers have told us, and shown us by watching, that they enjoy and want free-to-air sport. TVNZ is keen to offer more sport and will consider any opportunities as they arise."


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