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Liberty Global in no rush to monetize multi-screen

Multi-screen services must be made compelling to attract customers and resist churn before becoming money making ventures in their own right.

This message was spelled out last week by Michael Fries, CEO of the cable group Liberty Global, which has operations in 10 European countries including Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Speaking at the Cable Congress in Brussels, Belgium, Fries put multi-screen at center stage of the group’s strategy, arguing that it was ready to transform Europe’s pay-TV landscape in a similar way to broadband earlier. But, the focus must be on getting the experience right first and making it pay later, and, for now, cable operators should be content with the few Euros that may fall their way from additional advertising or increased demand for higher-value packages.

Fries reminded his audience at a panel event entitled, “A view from the top,” that Liberty Global was basing its multi-screen strategy around the Horizon hybrid set-top box bringing together broadcast and web content, rather as the TiVo box is doing for Virgin Media in the UK. This box is being introduced to UPC customers in the Netherlands in the second quarter of 2012, followed soon after by Switzerland, Germany and Ireland.

Horizon will embrace laptops, tablets and smartphones inside the home, as well as reaching mobile devices, using a “cloud” platform to deliver both broadcast and web content over IP.

Despite downplaying monetization of multi-screen, Fries emphasized that it was now right at the center of the group’s strategy, replacing high-speed broadband as the primary focus for development and marketing. This raised eyebrows at Cable Congress, since, only recently, Fries had been talking up the importance of the broadband wars for cable operators, and is still quoted on the Liberty Global web site saying “we are pushing up broadband speeds very aggressively and that has been the secret sauce in the success of our bundles.”

Yet, at Cable Congress, Fries was indicating that not all subscribers will be getting ultra-fast broadband, and suggested that the cable industry should pause for breath in the endless cycle of bandwidth increases. Indeed, he urged his peers to reflect more on what was compelling rather than just supplying ever more megabits per second.

Fries admitted there were still challenges in multi-screen, one being content rights negotiations, although he insisted that Liberty Global was learning how to do this more effectively. He also indicated that the first element of multi-screen delivery to get right was within the home to secondary TVs, PCs, tablets and smartphones there, rather than over mobile networks. For this reason, Liberty Global is downplaying the mobile-delivery aspect of Horizon, indicating that it would take its time on this aspect of delivery and keep investment relatively light.