Sam Chisholm, former chief executive of BSkyB – now Sky – and the man who led the company’s stock market flotation, has died at the age of 78.
Mr Chisholm, a New Zealander, was one of the key figures responsible for building Sky into Britain’s most profitable broadcasting company.
He was also partly responsible for transforming the finances of English football by sealing an exclusive broadcasting deal with the newly-formed Premier League in 1992 that delivered hundreds of millions of pounds to the sport.
News of his death comes as two of the world’s biggest media companies, 21st Century Fox and Comcast, are fighting to control Sky.
Mr Chisholm, who arrived with a pugnacious reputation, was appointed chief executive of the then Sky Television by its founder, Rupert Murdoch, in August 1990.
Image: Rupert Murdoch head-hunted Mr Chisholm to lead Sky Television
At the time, the channel was losing £2m a week and fighting to establish itself as the UK’s leading satellite broadcaster in competition with British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB), which was at the time losing around £8m a week.
Three months later, Sky and BSB merged to form BSkyB, with Mr Chisholm becoming managing director of the enlarged business and, eventually, chief executive.
He later recalled: “They [Sky and BSB] had simply spent themselves into oblivion. The truth was that both businesses had been conceptual failures. It hadn’t just been a failure, it had been an appalling failure.”
Mr Chisholm immediately set about cutting costs – including a deal that significantly reduced the fees being paid to several big Hollywood studios – and lining up some £200m in fresh capital from BSkyB’s shareholders.
By early 1992, the company was in the black, paving the way for the next stage in its development.
This came when, in May 1992, BSkyB – which had already proved the value of sports rights with an exclusive deal to broadcast the 1992 Cricket World Cup – outbid ITV for the rights to show live matches in the newly-formed Premier League.
Image: Manchester United won the first Premier League title in 1992/3
The deal gave the top flight of English football, which had previously been forced to sell its rights for a relative pittance to either the BBC or the ITV network, a hitherto unthinkable £304m over five years – enabling clubs to pay players more, bring in foreign talent and modernise their stadia.
Mr Chisholm later said of the deal: “It was the turning point of the company. It brought it of age.”
Exclusive rights to the Premier League helped drive both advertising revenues and satellite subscriptions and, by early 1994, BSkyB had more than 3.3 million household customers.
Mr Chisholm went on to lead the company’s flotation on the London Stock Exchange, in December 1994, in which it was valued at £4.4bn. The company, which changed its name to Sky in 2014 after taking over its sister companies Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland, is today worth £25.3bn.
In the years following the flotation, BSkyB’s profits continued to grow strongly, hitting £257m in the year to the end of June 1996.
By this time, BSkyB had more than 5.5 million household subscribers, which rose to more than 6 million in early 1997.
Other innovations followed. Sky showed its first pay-per-view event when, in March 1996, Frank Bruno fought Mike Tyson for the WBC heavyweight boxing title. Mr Chisholm then announced plans to launch a new 200-channel digital satellite service.
However, in June 1997, Mr Chisholm, who had become famous for his hard-driving working regime, announced he was stepping down on health grounds.
At the time, Mr Murdoch, whose company News Corporation by now owned 40% of BSkyB, said: “Sam Chisholm is unquestionably one of the best executives I have ever worked with.”
Mr Chisholm, who began his working life as a farm hand, emigrated to Australia in his 20s.
Image: Sam Chisholm and his wife attend a memorial for Kerry Packer in Australia in 2006
Having initially worked as a travelling salesman, selling floor wax, he then moved into media sales. He was just 35 when, in 1975, he was appointed managing director of Australia’s Nine Network by Kerry Packer.
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He was among those instrumental in launching World Series Cricket, which eventually transformed cricket’s finances every bit as much as the Premier League did for football in England, taking the network from third to first in Australia’s notoriously competitive commercial television industry. It was from here that Mr Murdoch headhunted him to join Sky.
Born with a chronic lung deficiency, Mr Chisholm received a double lung transplant in 2003, going on to be honoured for his fundraising for cancer charities. He is survived by his wife, Sue and his daughter, Caroline.