Growing up in apartheid-era South Africa, Stephen van Rooyen’s view of the world was shaped, in part, by state-controlled television.
Forty years later, van Rooyen is the UK and Ireland chief executive of media behemoth Sky, and in a uniquely powerful position to himself help shape how the world is viewed by millions of people.
The 45-year-old has spent the past 13 years at Sky, which in 2018 was majority-purchased by US media giant Comcast for an eye-watering $40 billion, beating out Disney to complete the most expensive UK business acquisition in the past 30 years.
It’s one of the most high-profile movements in an ever-changing media landscape, one which van Rooyen admits to being fascinated by even from early in his career.
“With media…it made a mark on me as a human being. I wanted to be somebody who could help change people’s perspectives and lives and thoughts, and media, fake news notwithstanding, is and has become one of the most influential ways to move ideas and entertain people.”
Van Rooyen was born in Johannesburg, and while he was sheltered from the worst of the apartheid regime, he said it was impossible to ignore it completely.
“When you’re a kid over there, you’re pretty protected from it…we lived in a neighbourhood that was segregated, so you didn’t know what you didn’t know and…TV was controlled by the state and so what you saw, what you read, what you heard, was pretty limited.
“Of course it started cracking through, you saw the rioting and you saw all the sanctions.”
Van Rooyen and his family moved to Australia in the late 80s, and he continued his schooling on the Gold Coast, before completing a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Law at Bond University.
What followed were roles in Sydney, London and Helsinki, and a stint with Virgin Media, before van Rooyen was tipped off to James Murdoch’s plans to launch a broadband business in the UK. It was suggested van Rooyen might want to meet with him.
Within a week, van Rooyen had been offered a role at Sky.
Starting out with responsibility for Sky’s product lines, van Rooyen moved up to manage sales and marketing, before becoming UK and Ireland CEO just over three years ago.
Van Rooyen is proud of helping build a business that he describes as being “probably seen as the world’s stand-out pay TV business, other than the Netflixes of the world.”
While organisations like Sky are typically viewed as being under threat from tech-savvy companies like Netflix and Amazon, van Rooyen views the relationship differently, noting that Netflix became available on Sky Q last year, and that Sky collaborated with Amazon on the nine-part Britannia television series.
“I think they’re great companies, no doubt. I think you’ve got to put them in different buckets…Netflix is a brilliant producer of proprietary content now, and people want it, and they’ve created a business model that at this point is highly attractive to consumers, and consumers want to use it. Our task is to figure out how to bring them into our ecosystem in a way which works for us and works for them.
“With all these companies, people including Disney or BT, we end up having sort of a ‘frenemies’ relationship, we buy stuff from them, they buy stuff from us, they do some things well, we do some things well, and you find an equilibrium that works as a business.”
Van Rooyen anticipates technology and consumption trends will continue to evolve towards the mixed mode of live television and television-on-demand.
Sitting alongside this for media companies is the acquisition of key broadcasting rights and premium franchises.
“As you’ve seen with Disney and Marvel or the Premier League, I think there are assets that continue to accrue in value, which I think is an important thing.”
He predicts disruption will continue to be an ever-present part of the media landscape, specifically around new technologies designed to enhance the overall production, creation or distribution or experience of media.
“Whether there’s 8K, whether there’s virtual reality, evolutions in the way we consume, I think, will have an effect on how people consume media over the next decade.”
But as media companies evolve, one thing remains clear to van Rooyen – how they treat the information they have about their customers remains of paramount importance.
The media’s reputation was battered by the fallout from the News of the World “phone-hacking” scandal, and van Rooyen says it’s critical that all companies take a responsible approach to the information they have access to.
“It’s extraordinarily important that customer data is treated with respect and use of it is ethical and only for the advancement of the customer’s experience of a company’s products or services. I think the idea that you sell a customer’s data or exploit it in unethical ways is probably one of the big questions of the modern big data era. I don’t think you can walk past the idea that the biggest issues that will breach customers’ trust and therefore undermine your brand is the use or misuse of their data.”
Despite the scandals of the past, he has strong views on the media’s sometimes turbulent relationship with the public.
“The public has done itself a disservice by putting all media into the same basket. Something on Facebook is completely different from a journalist in the Times, a journalist in the Times is not only trained to be a journalist, but the rigorous structure that sits around evidentiary reporting and responsibility to the brand and all that stuff is very different from some person sitting in a room somewhere in the world just spouting what they think.”
He sees “deep irony” in the fact that much of the discussion around so-called fake news comes from Facebook and Twitter, two organisations van Rooyen says have gone out of their way to claim they’re not media companies, in order to be regulated differently and avoid being taxed.
Van Rooyen points the finger squarely at governments and business for the break down in public trust.
“Public trust has been broken down in general by governments and by business, it’s not a media thing – politicians lying or embezzling or cheating, or businesses like VW fabricating results, there’s a broader theme in society which is trust is eroded because people and companies and structures that
we have held in high regard in the past, have taken advantage of the public’s trust, it’s a broad topic and issue for all business I think, not just the media industry.”
Trust is central to van Rooyen’s approach to business, and he sees it as critical to future prosperity for media organisations.
“In these sorts of times, there’s a flight to quality. If you look at something like the Times in London, they’ll say that their sales and their digital subscriptions are growing at the fastest-ever rate, at an all-time high, because where do you go when you want to trust somebody, you go somewhere where their reputation is built on trust.
“They’re (media) not perfect and they do make mistakes, but they’re certainly not in the same boat as some bloke in a room just publishing stuff like ‘the holocaust never happened’. I do think in the fullness of time, those that understand and engender trust and are committed to trust are the ones that, when there’s noise, survive and thrive.”
Alongside building trust is an emphasis on social responsibility that van Rooyen and Sky have embraced.
In 2018 the organisation teamed up with National Geographic on a campaign to reduce ocean plastic, while later in the same year they imposed a limit on the number of gambling advertisements able to be broadcast per ad break.
“The issue is one about social responsibility and balancing that with…it is a legitimate pasttime and is legal, with the overall product we deliver – I wasn’t happy that every ad during a Premier League game was for gambling.
“Because we have a voice, because we’re in half of UK homes, because we have a news organisation, where there are real issues, we think it’s incredibly important that we play a part to air them,” van Rooyen says.
It’s a long way from Johannesburg to London, which van Rooyen now calls home.
He feels he’s finally made it to where he always wanted to be – even if it took him longer than expected.
“The thing about my career, I look back at it now and I probably didn’t realise it at the time, is there were building blocks, each time I did something it was a building block to something else. I have, if I’m honest, always been attracted to being in the media business, it probably took me longer to get myself there than I should have, but I got there in the end."