Tom Mockridge vs Silvio ‘Il Cavaliere’ Berlusconi
By Kate Bulkley
Rupert Murdoch handpicked Tom Mockridge to take on Silvio Berlusconi. Kate Bulkley asks how is he bearing up?
Italy is shaping up to be the latest and most confrontational battle-ground for digital television in Europe. On one side is the country’s prime minister himself, Silvio Berlusconi, a scarily powerful man whose influence embraces both parliament and the press.
While running a country, he has also kept his grip on its media as the head of the giant Fininvest company that controls three of the largest TV channels as well as newspapers, radio and film. Berlusconi is flamboyant; he is constantly in the news (in fact, he can set the news agenda if he likes because he owns so many media outlets); and he usually wins.
If you were Rupert Murdoch and you wanted to put your best man opposite Berlusconi for a big fight, you might choose the exact opposite of the Italian PM. That probably describes Tom Mockridge, the chief executive of Sky Italia and the man charged by Murdoch with imposing the highly successful UK pay-TV model on the Italian landscape.
While Silvio is never out of the headlines, Tom is almost never in them. He rarely gives interviews and when he does it’s only if he thinks they will help him attract more subscribers, according to a colleague based in News Corp’s New York offices.
The political game
As Berlusconi runs the country and his media interests amid accusations of conflicts of interest, so Mockridge is focused on a Murdoch-inspired plan that includes ending pay-TV piracy in a country where dodging any kind of official payment is commonplace.
When the Italian PM is striding around his land as Il Cavaliere (a title bestow-ed by the state in recognition of his business interests), the CEO of Sky Italia is probably reading every page of a 60-page legal document to ensure that his company’s strategies are on track.
In fact, Mockridge – a 49-year-old New Zealander – is a man with an unusually comprehensive understanding of prime ministers. This highly political ex-journalist spent seven years between 1984 and 1991 as press officer to Paul Keating when the Australian prime minister-to-be was minister of the Treasury.
“Tom is very politically interested,” said former colleague and current COO of Fox International Channels David Haslingden. “He understands the various political agendas. Wherever he goes – whether it’s New Zealand, Hong Kong or Italy – he has a good understanding of what’s going on politically and that’s very helpful.” Certainly, in a country like Italy, political savvy goes a long way.
Mockridge may have cut his political teeth in the world of Australian politics, but it was straight after leaving Keating’s office in 1991 and entering the Murdoch empire that he first learned about the politics of the media business.
In that year he became assistant to the CEO of News Limited in Australia, Murdoch’s holding company that owns all his newspaper interests in that country. Mockridge was there for five years before moving as CEO to Foxtel, News Corp’s Australian pay-TV group.
Tough training regime
Three years later he moved to Hong Kong at the height of the dotcom craziness. There Mockridge worked on putting together a new-media joint venture between News Corp and Hong Kong Telecom that would work alongside Murdoch’s Asian pay satellite TV business, Star TV.
This was followed by a short stint as CEO of Independent Newspapers, the largest news-paper group in New Zealand, and part owned by News Corp. This was a very important, high-profile job as Mockridge set about rationalising the company. Concurrent with this he was president of a related company, Sky New Zealand, the outfit’s pay-TV arm.
When Mockridge arrived in Italy in September 2002 to run Stream, a recent addition to News Corp’s European pay-TV holdings, he had certainly earned Murdoch’s trust.
Three months earlier, Murdoch had purchased another pay-TV company in Italy, called Telepiu, from Vivendi Universal, thus creating a foothold in a country he’d been eyeing up for many years.
A blow below the belt
The two pay-TV operations had a combined tally of 2.3 million subscribers. Mockridge would be the man to turn the Stream/Telepiu merger into Sky Italia and begin the toe-to-toe contest with Berlusconi.
Apart from integrating the two companies, Mockridge’s other main task has been addressing Italy’s rampant pay-TV piracy problem by putting Sky’s own conditional access system in place.
Initially this strategy led to a substantial decrease in subscriber numbers, but Mockridge has since got them back to 2.6 million, with a 3 million target in his sights for the current financial year.
However, just as Sky Italia’s future looked bright, Mockridge found himself with another Berlusconi-inspired problem. Over the summer, the PM’s Mediaset television group (controlled by Fininvest) managed to sign up digital terrestrial pay-TV rights for the home matches of a posse of top Italian football teams – including the Berlusconi-owned AC Milan, the many-times European club champions.
Analysts could hardly believe that Sky Italia’s own cable and satellite pay-TV deal was not watertight. Not satisfied with inflicting this blow to Sky Italia’s subscription solar plexus, Mediaset also announced in late July the creation of a brand new children’s channel, a joint venture with Turner Broadcasting.
Seconds out for a long grudge match
Mockridge has publicly brushed off the DTT threat, but this is now a gloves-off fight and analysts expect a fierce price battle. In his corner, Mockridge does have some powerful allies.
Fox, the programming arm of News Corp, is adding its weight to Sky Italia’s pay package by providing five channels, the newest of which is Fox Live, an entertainment channel with a large portion of programming made locally.
While Mockridge continues to focus on a plan for Sky Italia to reach break-even by the end of 2005, Berlusconi is firing off new deals, creating spoiling tactics and using his considerable influence to slow Mockridge down.
Taking on a man as powerful as Berlusconi might end in a quick knockout against many more-easily intimidated TV bosses. Tom Mockridge, however, is not your average opponent.
According to friends and colleagues in the TV world, he has “all the best attributes of Australian managers and not many of the bad ones”. Sounds like Mockridge vs Berlusconi could go the full 15 rounds.