BSkyB meeting a theatrical event

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LONDON -- It is intended to to be the very theater of shareholder democracy, but attendees at BSkyB's annual general meeting Friday were left wondering if the event had more in common with a pantomime, with scarcely a genuine investor in sight.

Not that the luridly blue-lit room at the Royal Institute of British Architects was empty at 9 a.m. on Friday morning, far from it. A head count of around ninety smartly dressed types milling around the room, attempting to look busy in a tense atmosphere.

There were a lot of press, for a start; the Sky meeting provides one of the very few occasions for Brit reporters to find themselves in the presence of a genuine global media mogul, and an opportunity to share the same hallowed air as News Corp. CEO and BSkyB chairman Rupert Murdoch is too good to pass up.

No fewer than three reporters had turned up from the Financial Times alone.

Perhaps they were there for the chance to eyeball the satcaster's 15-strong board, which is replete with its own share of business luminaries.

Entrepreneur Allan Leighton, News Corp. counsel Arthur Siskind, Random House chairman and chief executive Gail Rebuck, Blackstone general partner and banking scion Jacob Rothschild were just some of the execs who had cleared their schedules to assemble dutifully for the annual event.

There was a healthy turnout of Sky's own execs and some from its affiliated PR agencies, who also filed in to make sure everything ran to plan.

But when it came to the actual number of shareholders in attendance the picture is less clear.

BSkyB was coy about answering a request final numbers, but from where I sat in the room, only four could be seen.

Easily identifiable by the fact they were wielding hand-held voting devices - so that their contribution to the voting resolutions could be immediately incorporated to the proxy tally - shareholders appeared to be even more than averagely scarce on the ground.

In previous years a spirited, if largely elderly, contingent had been in attendance, enthusiastically tackling the News Corp. chairman on everything from his personal responsibility for the violence afflicting society to the amount of sex (shareholders prefer to use the term "filth") on television screens, an many enjoy the opportunity to make lengthy personal statements on matters that occasionally verged on the vague.

But not this year.

Only one shareholder raised a question at the meeting, and since shareholders are the only ones entitled to speak, business moved rapidly on to voting on the resolutions.

When it became clear that no more questions would be forthcoming, a ripple of what looked like happiness borne of disbelief travelled through the ranks of the assembled board, as if they had been let off an afternoon of Latin verb conjugations and could not believe their luck.

Not that Murdoch Sr. has ever been one to fight shy of an aggressive line in questioning, memorably cutting off one irate investor in full flow some years ago with the suggestion that he should "feel free to sell his shares" if he were dissatisfied with their performance.

If nothing else, the meeting does proffer the surreal spectacle of a media giant whose call can make politicians and prime ministers quake, gently outlining the finer points of voting in the style of a lowly operator at American Express.

"Those in favor of the resolution press number one on the handset, those against press two and those who wish to withhold their vote should press three," Murdoch was obliged to explain, before each of the votes on the agenda was cast.

Whether the four shareholders in the room managed to get the hang of the new-fangled process is not known, since the voting outcomes remained secret.

But they seemed happy enough to add their individual tallies to the 1,440,936,343 votes - for resolution 1 - that had been sewn up before the meeting began.

There was also a sense that the voting process was a tad half-hearted in some quarters.

"Resolution 11 is rather long," said Murdoch, outlining a vote concerning political donations. "Resolutions 13, 14 and 15 are also rather long, so I ask the meeting to take those as read."

As the resolutions were swiftly concluded, the meeting efficiently came to a close and the BSkyB board members were once more borne aloft to their dizzy corporate heights, via a suite of waiting limos, their onerous duty to investors concluded.

It was left to seasoned shareholder attendee Roger Mortlock to explain why his brethren were so few in number.

"Shareholders who come are usually quite elderly and come from a long way way. They cannot use their (senior citizen) railcards before 10 am," he pointed out.
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