I was lucky enough to receive a personal invitation to this year’s annual general meeting from Yvonne Carmen Andresen, a shareholder of Sky Deutschland AG. She certainly saw a great opportunity for this company to be successful in the long term with the help of the football broadcasting rights – as long as the quality of the reporting would be carefully refined. She may even have come to this conclusion through her acquaintance with me, a true and lifelong football enthusiast who almost always maintains neutrality when watching the matches, but at the same time observes – and also listens – with the utmost attention.
The meeting took place on 3.4.2012 in Munich, as the broadcaster has its headquarters nearby – namely in Unterföhring. The old congress centre was rented, a worthy ambience. As a shareholder, you enjoy such recognition – you are financing the company, even if presumably every shareholder has the hardly reprehensible intention of capitalising on it one day – that you have to present your credentials when you enter, and are allowed to do so first with quite attractive young ladies who smile at you all the time, but directly behind them you are already being served drinks by likewise mostly female charmers. In addition, quite tasty pretzels are already available in the morning, so that one is inclined to feel good.
Around 10 a.m. the event began with the reading of some trivia, which of course are all part of the agenda. As one learns (especially me, for the first time), the shareholders can ask their questions afterwards, which would be answered by the completely assembled board. First, however, the boss himself, Brian Sullivan, who in his appearance was almost a little reminiscent of Steve Jobs, gave a speech, briefly replaced for a few numerical values of the company, by Steven Tomsic. Both gave their speeches in English, but one could have listened to the simultaneous translation into German via headphones – which I did not use. The English was very easy to understand.
The procedure for the shareholders’ questions was as follows: one had to sign a list of speakers. Each event participant had received a voting booklet – for the later votes – with a registered number. Since I was only a guest, my name was linked to that of Ms Andresen, but I was also allowed to vote. So she had to register to speak at the lectern, but I was supposed to step forward, or, if you like, ask the questions.
I was not quite prepared for that, as I was more prepared for a speech. However, on the spot, I trusted myself to adapt to the circumstances.
First of all, a few other shareholders presented their grievances in quite excellently prepared speeches – all read out, however –. These people had different positions and needs, of course, but it was generally quite easy to follow and well done. Of course, Mr. Sullivan had rather talked about the great upswing, prepared a little film to show Sky in new and even greater splendour and simply to encourage the shareholders. Those giving the speeches, however, were critical, if mostly sympathetic, in their presentations, putting their fingers on the wounds.
It should be known – and of course it was not concealed – that it is a risk stock and that at the same time the prices are pretty much in the cellar, even if there has been a positive development recently. The company continues to operate at a loss and is far from being able to dream of black figures (which one of the shareholders called “green figures” in his speech). This would require a huge (further) upswing in subscription figures. The red figures, by the way, continue to be borne by the major shareholder Rupert Murdoch, whose drip, according to some of the speakers, the company is dependent on, which of course cannot be a satisfactory state of affairs in the long run.
How the company intends to secure this necessary customer base is based primarily on improved technology and exclusivity, according to their ideas. For example, there is now “Sky Go” for mobile phones or an expanded channel offering of 60 channels, plus improved technology in the selection of programmes – individually adapted – as well as, of course, the High Density process, which really does deliver outstanding picture quality, but which you currently still have to subscribe to separately. Furthermore, a completely new technology was presented in the entrance area, also available exclusively at Sky, with which one could see really fantastic 3D quality, of course the whole thing to try out. An impressive experience for everyone who put on the glasses.
Well, I have relatively little to say on these points. In my view, the Bundesliga is the draught horse. It has to be the driving force, preferably supplemented by the Champions League, Euro League and DFB Cup, if it were up to me, plus foreign football, which is currently being broadcast (even again) from Italy and England.
So when I was asked to take the podium, I wanted to talk about it, just about football and the great opportunity to acquire customers with it. Above all, however, about the fact that the far more than poor coverage is responsible for not being able to reach its targeted subscription figures. This is my very firm conviction, as I also tried to convey in my talk. It seemed to me that the audience was quite satisfied with the content and the vibrancy embodied. It became apparent here, as with all privately conducted surveys and conversations, that as soon as you start to respond to the type of coverage presented, you are poking into a barrel that threatens to spill out immediately. ALL respondents immediately jump into the same groove in order to bend the picture a little (which accordingly causes the barrel to leak even faster). “The reporting? You can’t stand it, I’ll turn off the sound immediately”, was the uniform tenor. One could also see the approving, partly amused expressions at every standard phrase quoted that one hears from reporters’ mouths in packets – all of which, however, are not only miserable, scornful and only spread boredom in terms of tone, but at the same time, as a rule, wrong and inappropriate.
So even if my presentation was halfway successful, and some spontaneous applause broke out now and then, I personally was not entirely satisfied. No sooner had I finished and stretched my legs for a moment than an eager shareholder came after me, praised me for the words I had found, at the same time emphasising that he had just cancelled the sports package again (!!), but had nevertheless prepared a few words of criticism: “It should have been expressed much more drastically.” Yes, as I said, the same notch.
No, I emphasised the foreign comparison by saying that there, regardless of whether one understood the language or not, one would be drawn directly into the action by the tone of voice, whereas here one would be lulled to sleep by the monotonous drivel, which is also consistently grumbling. I even experienced this when interviewing foreign fellow observers, some of whom were stunned – without understanding the language – by how emotionless-monotone this language came across, but unfortunately I also failed to mention this in the speech.
A vivid attempt to make clear how inferior the live commentaries are was the example from the Champions League match Milan vs. Barca a fortnight ago, when the best of the best met, and after 9 quite lively minutes of play (!) the commentator let out this unbelievable sentence: “Noticeable, on both sides the many mistakes and inadequacies.” No, that was simply absurd. How can you do that, from what position do you do it? And: does one think that afterwards subscribers would queue up because they want to hear a moronic self-promoter?
Unfortunately, these (concluding) words did not occur to me during the lecture or I omitted them out of decency. The colleague at the door showed me how inappropriate that was. I also failed to mention that I was of the opinion that of all the commentators broadcasting in 126 countries worldwide, ONLY ONE would have recognised these many shortcomings of which the narrow-minded gentleman spoke. At the same time, this could have been addressed as a question to the gentlemen of the Presidency: Do you think it is because there really were shortcomings or did this gentleman have his findings in the navel of the world football country (so he should be convinced) exclusively for himself? But one could have followed this up with the almost even more important question: if these accumulated errors and inadequacies had really existed, would one believe that the best way to sell such rotten eggs is to reveal straight away that they are rotten? “The worst kind of goods. Rotten eggs, small, and way too expensive. Come to me!” Would this guarantee the market crier customers in droves?
When it came to the answers to the questions, which were obviously stenographed and presented to Dr. Enßlin, who appeared slightly arrogant, knowledgeable and superior (thus reminiscent of the rapporteurs), he began to answer.
He was able to blur the first impression quite well with his voice, for it was decidedly pleasant. He answered as a trained lawyer does. Not a bit emotional – although some of the questions were of course quite aggressive, at least in terms of content — calm, detached and certainly appearing highly competent. Whether this was enough to put the shareholders at ease remains to be seen. In any case, there was a good answer to all the questions, except for the one about one of the essential questions for the future of the company, the one about the fight for the award of the broadcasting rights for football from 2013, where there was a new tender and one is in competition with Telecom, but the omission of answers was already announced in advance for corporate-political and understandable reasons.
When it came to answering my questions, only the one was selected, asked as a triple question. Something like this: “Mr. Paulsen asked whether we on the board would occasionally watch a game live with commentary and whether we would make sure when selecting commentators that they understood something about the subject and whether they knew how commentary was done abroad. He also complained about the sometimes soporific, consistently negative nature of the coverage.”
There was only about half an answer to this: of course they would pay attention to the qualification of the commentators when selecting them, they would let them speak in test reports, at the same time they would be constantly trained and furthermore market research institutes had found out that people in Germany wanted a somewhat more distanced reporting compared to abroad. That was it, nothing more.
Of course, it was clear to me beforehand that they wouldn’t immediately throw their arms around my neck, but that there would be a fundamental resistance to my views, especially since it would be tantamount to admitting one’s own failure to now denounce the reporting. How could they say: “Yes, you are right, the reporting is really bad. Good idea, we’ll get right to work. Thank you very much for your cooperation.”
Nevertheless, I should have taken the opportunity afterwards when the person in charge of the event (a sensation: a Swiss who speaks good English!) asked whether all the questions had now been fully answered? He glanced briefly at the (rather large group, did not land on me with his gaze), and shortly afterwards declared that this was obviously the case. The chance was short, but it was there.
So, in retrospect, I regret not speaking up again. I should still have asked these two questions quickly, precisely because completeness was asked for: “You have answered the one part of the question. Good. But what about part one of the question? Do you occasionally watch a match, in its entirety, for 90 minutes, with German commentary, and listen? If you answer ‘no’ to that, I will withdraw your competence to answer. Then someone else will have to do it. And you can’t answer ‘yes’ at all, because under no circumstances would you be able to stand it for 90 minutes without smashing the TV.”
The second supplementary question should have read as follows: “Dear Dr Enßlin, since the market research institutes have found out that Germans want a somewhat more detached commentary – which I am forced to believe for the time being, until I conduct my own surveys, which I will then gladly send to you — what do the opinion researchers have to say about whether the comments should be accurate or not? Because: if these commentators talk about permanent inadequacies and mistakes and they are the only ones of all commentating experts worldwide who recognise them, then the big question is whether they are right. They are wrong, and not only in this case. They are permanently wrong in their analyses. And this, my dear Doctor Enßlin, can under no circumstances be a desired effect, according to my firmly held opinion.”