Beneath the Earth’s crust amidst fierce heat and intense pressure, diamonds are forged. In this geological phenomenon the altered conditions transform dull graphite into a sparkling gemstone. In society, times of great upheaval have similar impacts – mass disruption, unforeseen challenges, and irreversible damage. But they also create rare pockets of brilliance. Stephen van Rooyen (Class of 1991) saw this in action during the pandemic. The Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer of Sky UK and Europe helped one of the world’s biggest media companies navigate through Covid – keeping staff safe and finding new ways to deliver their products and services, all while bringing people the news on the global calamity. Amidst all of that, the Sky team managed to create something entirely new that would transform television: Sky Glass.
“In the middle of a pandemic which had upended entire sections of our business, we started making a new kind of television,” Mr van Rooyen says. “We started the project in 2019 but launched at the back end of 2021. So we were running engineers and supply chains and building warehouses and factories and all that sort of stuff during Covid.”
Sky Glass is the next step in streaming, offering a premium TV service integrated into a bespoke flatscreen. It comes with built-in Sky TV plus an extensive number of alternative services, without the need for a dish or a set-top box. Mr van Rooyen believes the pressure and change caused by the pandemic led to more innovative thinking and ideas, ultimately delivering a better product.
“The challenge of innovation during that period is tough, but it helps you develop new and novel solutions; it helps you innovate in ways that you wouldn't have otherwise done,” he says. “It was a difficult period for us, like it was for everybody, but I think the organisation is a better place for it.”
The changed and changing world has long been a source of fascination for Mr van Rooyen. Growing up in South Africa during apartheid, state media played a role in shaping his perspective on the world.
“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.”
Mr Van Rooyen and his family moved to Australia in the late 1980s, 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 Mr van Rooyen was tipped off to James Murdoch’s plans to launch a broadband business in the UK. Within a week of arranging a meeting, Mr van Rooyen had been offered a role at Sky. Fast-forward 16 years and he remains fascinated and inspired by the world of media and entertainment, and its ability to help change the world for better.
Sky and Mr van Rooyen have embraced the media’s role and responsibility in society as a driver of positive change. 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. He will be watching closely and with deep curiosity as the world heads into what could be one of the greatest periods of societal upheaval ever seen. We may be emerging from the Covid pandemic, but the cost-of-living crisis, the war in Ukraine and intensifying weather conditions driven by climate change are creating a new set of challenges for society to navigate.
“Here in the UK, fuel poverty is going to become a real thing in the next six months. The forecast is that by January almost 60 per cent of the UK - that's an extraordinary number - will be in fuel poverty,” he says. “I think the next year or so is going to be incredibly tough for families.”
Though he worries about the potential for civil unrest and increasing support for nationalistic policy as people are forced to fight for the basics – shelter, heating, food and fuel - an inherently optimistic nature drives Mr van Rooyen to reflect on the positive changes he’s seen come from times of great struggle. That ability to maintain a gentle, almost detached curiosity about the events to come and how they might shape the future world comes from focusing on the bigger picture, Mr van Rooyen says.
“I read a book once called the Rational Optimist, which I loved. And the underlying thesis of the book is that no matter how tough it gets for humanity in society, we always find a way. Find a way to overcome, to innovate, to change. I believe in that notion, I believe in humanity’s capacity to innovate,” he says. “Despite all these crises we are, as a society, better off than we were a decade ago, two decades ago. So, I just look through the moment of crisis in a change and believe that we remain on an upward trend of improving our society.”