Liberty Global CEO Talks ITV Stake, Subscriber Momentum

Mike Fries - 2016 UJA Federation of New York's Leadership Awards - Getty - H 2017
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Mike Fries also discusses Fox's planned deal to take full control of Sky and what it will mean for pay TV competition.

Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries touted improving U.K. business trends after John Malone's international cable operator late Wednesday reported its third-quarter financials.

In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Fries also said that Liberty Global remains happy with its 9.9 percent stake in ITV. "It's a great business, a great company," he said. "We are looking forward to the new CEO Carolyn McCall [starting in 2018]."

Asked if the company could increase or lower its stake in ITV, Fries said: "I have nothing to say. ... We are happy shareholders."

Liberty Global posted third-quarter operating cash flow of $2.2 billion, down from $2.4 billion in the year-ago period, with operating income down to $335.8 million from $902.7 million. 

The company’s European unit lost 30,800 video subscribers in the third quarter, compared with a year-ago loss of 19,300, while its Latin American business lost 3,900 video customers, compared with a gain of 4,600 in the year-ago period. 

"The European market remains highly competitive, but our investments in the fastest broadband speeds, the coolest video apps and compelling quad-play bundles are allowing us to win share across our footprint," said Fries.

Discussing the improved momentum that cable giant Virgin Media in the U.K. saw in the latest quarter, the exec said: "There are a few things that have really stabilized the Virgin business and added some momentum. One is the new build continues, so we added at least another 150,000 in the U.K. that we can market to." Secondly, "we announced a price increase that hit this week," which Fries said the company "did a good job of managing," and "we continue to add a ton of customers," he said. "It's organically growing at a very rapid pace."

The CEO pointed to the addition of 329,000 revenue generating units year-to-date, highlighting that "every quarter every year we are adding more customers and seeing that accelerating growth" despite a "highly competitive market" as "Virgin really stands out in terms of its products and services."

What does Fries expect for U.K. pay TV competition if 21st Century Fox's deal for full control of Sky gets approved next year? "I believe the transaction will get approved, and I don't see any major impact on the market," he told THR. "Fox is already a very large shareholder; it already has great influence over the business and its strategy. So no, I don't see a huge change or impact."

Asked about any signs of cord-cutting in Europe and Latin America, where Liberty Global is active, Fries said subscriber trends in the U.S. "look to be getting worse over time, [while] ours [are] getting better." He added: "It's a different dynamic than in the U.S. We are not that stressed about our video sub base."