Foxtel chairman Sam Chisholm has finally stepped aside, but is staying on the board of the troubled pay TV operator, replacing PBL executive chairman James Packer, whose workload has just increased with the chairmanship of Seek.

By leaving Chisholm on the board, along with former Optus CEO Chris Anderson, Kerry Packer is acknowledging that he and PBL need their knowledge and experience to fight the coming battles.

Chisholm spent the best part of 20 years running Channel Nine for Packer, and then BSkyB for Murdoch, and when combined with a three-year stint chairing Foxtel, he’s better placed than anyone else to work the angles.

PBL is feeling very put upon and defensive at the moment as it experiences continuing ratings losses to Seven, heavy media attacks from News Ltd and the defection of its AFL partner Channel Ten. With about $500 million already sunk into Foxtel by PBL, Kerry Packer wants Chisholm in there defending his position.

PBL and News Ltd are joint owners of Premier Media Group which controls Fox Sports, so this relationship also needs to be managed as the rockets continue to go off. The first battle is over the digitisation of the Foxtel Network. It’s dragging down Foxtel, and News and PBL want to kick start it by doing a deal with Optus, but can’t persuade Telstra to play ball.

Foxtel, which won’t break even in the coming year as originally planned, sacked 30 people just before Easter to cut costs. Telstra has obviously felt constrained by having Chisholm as Foxtel chairman – someone who was also a director of one of the shareholders (PBL) on the other side of the fence – during an argument like the one that’s been going on.

Why on earth Telstra chairman Donald McGauchie tolerated the hugely conflicted Chisholm remaining as Foxtel chairman is hard to comprehend. Maybe John Howard’s closeness to the Packer family is one explanation?

Sensis CEO Bruce Akhurst has finally been appointed chairman of Foxtel, which is interesting given that he’s perceived to be a Ziggy man who has recently been marginalised inside Telstra. Then again, Akhurst has been a Foxtel director for a while and is joined on the board by Gerry Sutton, the head of Telstra’s Big Pond media and content division.

These two appointments suggest Telstra plans to assert itself and is digging in for a battle. Oh to be a fly on the wall at the next Foxtel board meeting. No wonder PBL is finding the gambling industry easier to deal with.

Peter Fray

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