TOP PERFORMERS OF 1996: MEDIUM OF THE YEAR: SKY TELEVISION - From pay-per-view to first runs of cult shows, Sky stayed ahead of its rivals and is already gearing up for the digital TV battle. On current form, can it lose?

Sky chiefs can look back on 1996 as a watershed. The company was rarely out of the headlines and, while it wasn’t always good news, Sky left the competition floundering in its wake.

Sky chiefs can look back on 1996 as a watershed. The company was

rarely out of the headlines and, while it wasn’t always good news, Sky

left the competition floundering in its wake.



For a company only seven years old, Sky displays all the hallmarks of a

mature operation, leading the field in developments across the

broadcasting industry and setting the pace for others. New channels,

pay-per-view, preparations for digital broadcasting and increased

UK-originated programming all helped to earn Sky Campaign’s Medium of

the Year award,



Sky is changing the way we use television. By the end of 1996, it had 12

channels, seven joint venture channels with Granada Television, and Sky

Scottish in association with STV. Almost six million households across

the UK had access to Sky by the close of the year and, more importantly,

viewing levels were at a record high for the medium. March 1996 saw

satellite TV overtake Channel 4’s share of viewing for the first time

By August, satellite had notched up a record share of 11.7 per cent,

ahead of BBC 2.



Sky’s programming also continued to develop beyond cheap US import

fodder to include first runs of cult serials such as the X-Files and

Murder One, before their transfer to terrestrial channels. In addition,

the company renewed its exclusive live rights to the Premier League,

signed a five-year deal with the Rugby Union and commissioned its first

soap drama, Springhill.



But it was Sky’s decision to leap into a new method of programme

delivery - pay-per-view - that really marked the company out as an

industry leader.



In March, more than 660,000 subscribers paid at least pounds 9.99 to see

Mike Tyson battling Frank Bruno for the world heavyweight title - the

UK’s first venture into this type of broadcasting.



More than 430,000 people paid up to see Sky’s second foray into this

field - Tyson versus Holyfield, despite the lack of a national

interest.



Another broadcasting development - digital television - also propelled

Sky into the headlines last year, even though digital is not expected to

launch until later in 1997. Such is Sky’s determination to move swiftly

into the next era of broadcasting, embracing digital and delivering it

to viewers ahead of its competitors, that rivals already fear a Sky

stranglehold on digital technology.



Being determined, forward-thinking and ambitious was never guaranteed to

win popularity.



But it could well be Sky’s fledgling alliance with BT, through its deal

last year with MCI, the US telecoms giant, that is the company’s most

significant leap towards the future.



The coming together of TV programming, distribution and

telecommunications under the steer of these two giants could ensure

Sky’s dominance for the 21st century.



Of course, Sky has made enemies along the way, notably the cable

operators, who have complained loudly about the way Sky packages its

channels for cable subscribers. And when it comes to handling the

advertising industry, there’s still a feeling among media buyers that

advertisers are not top of Sky’s list of priorities. But for all its

lack of sensitivity, Sky has forced moribund competitors to rethink

their own strategies and start shaping up for the next broadcasting

era.



Talking of lack of sensitivity, IPC’s Loaded magazine was runner-up in

the Medium of the Year category. Last year was very good by Loaded

standards.



James Brown, the editor, was voted the British Society of Magazine

Editors’ Editor of the Year for the second year running, while Michael

Holden, a feature writer, was Young Journalist of the Year.



Yet 1996 was about more than winning awards, it was about proving people

wrong. When Loaded launched in April 1994, it was dismissed as a

one-year (if that) wonder. Circulation for the first issue was just

67,000 but by the end of 1996 sales were nudging 300,000 according to

ABC figures.



Advertisers who were slow to embrace the ’bad lads’ environment were

soon convinced by its rising circulation, with mainstream brands such as

HP Sauce advertising on a poster of a bacon sandwich. Loaded has

revolutionised the men’s magazine sector and, while many publications

have attempted to mimic its in-yer-face, devil-may-care attitude, the

original is still the best.



Loaded has set the agenda in its marketplace, forcing rivals to consider

the babes/sex issue, particularly on their front covers, no matter what

the content of the inside pages. FHM, relaunched this year as a Loaded

clone, has also been a big success. And launch after launch is described

as a ’Loaded for ...’ In short, Loaded can be seen as a media and

cultural phenomenon.



An honourable mention must also go to the Guardian, which has probably

had the busiest year of all the daily broadsheet newspapers, making

strides in everything from the Phoenix Festival to teaching MPs a lesson

about taking cash for questions.



Having managed to ride out the worst of the price-cutting wars in

previous years, 1996 saw the Guardian hold firm, making small but

significant circulation gains, finishing the year above the crucial

400,000 mark.



Brand development managed to keep the paper ahead of the

competition.



In 1996, the Guardian launched a 24-page Friday sport tabloid, Sport

’96, carried out a much-needed revamp of the Saturday Guardian and

launched the highly rated Guardian Guide nationally. Despite these many

changes, the Guardian remained a touchstone for quality.



Recent winners: Daily Mail (1995); Classic FM (1994); Channel 4 (1993);

the Guardian (1992).



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