Media Forum: Is Sky One's strategy working?

Will its new schedule help Sky make up ground on its rivals, Jane Bainbridge asks.

Sky One is a channel under pressure. Earlier this year, James Murdoch, the BSkyB chief executive, admitted that its ratings had been disappointing despite extra investment and a change in strategy to go for a more upmarket audience. At the time, James Baker, the controller of Sky One, defended its performance, saying it would not be until the autumn schedule that the strategy really bore fruit.

So last week, as Murdoch revealed the schedule, all eyes were on the content of Sky's flagship entertainment channel to see if it contained enough "must-see" shows to claw back ground from its competitors.

Sky One certainly has some work to do to fight off the likes of ITV2 and E4. Sky One had a 1.8 per cent share in multichannel homes, compared with ITV2's 2 per cent and E4's 2.4 per cent, according to Barb's July figures.

In trying to go for a broader schedule, the channel has included US drama imports, home-grown documentaries and the latest series of proven favourites such as Nip/Tuck and The 4400. The key imports are the US comedy drama Weeds (about a suburban housewife selling cannabis) and the sci-fi series Threshold. Weeds has received good reviews in the US and Sky will hope it will prove a draw for female viewers. Piers Morgan, Julie Burchill and Peaches Geldof are among the names authoring one-off documentaries on issues close to their hearts.

Baker says this line-up is a direct consequence of the decision to align Sky One's content more closely with the overall brand values of the Sky platform and provides the best quality possible. "From a strategy perspective, we could have gone down the route of carrying on with the popular tabloid entertainment. That would have led to a decline and a big dissonance with the platform. This autumn schedule is the strongest indication of the type of audience we want to get to and the type of values that we're aiming to achieve. We're very keen to continue to build on the progress in growth of the ABC1, 25- to 44-year-old audience - that's our main priority," he says.

"It will be a three-year job at least to get audiences to recognise that and we're a year in. If in every quarter we have a dozen clear appointments to view, then that's about right."

Oliver Cleaver, the Kimberly-Clark European media director, is one client convinced by Sky's strategy and prepared to put his money into the channel.

"There is a better blend in the schedule, by the looks of this. We've been increasing our investment by 30 per cent in the past 12 months. We decreased it when it was struggling - it had a problem with housewives and children impacts in 2004 - and increased it when it seemed to be regaining some confidence. A strategy based on better content has to be the way forward - it's easy to say but difficult to do," he says.

"In the short term, it does have a problem because it is not anchored to a major terrestrial channel such as E4 or ITV2. Sky pioneered the family of channels but now the others have it too and they have a big daddy that can promote them," Cleaver adds.

One solution to Sky One's ratings fall-off would be to go on Freeview.

While Baker says this is out of the question, others think it is the only answer.

Chris Locke, Starcom's group trading director, says: "Sky's sales numbers are held up by Hallmark and Discovery. Sky One's the sick child and this schedule doesn't make it better. There is so much competition. It should move to Freeview; not doing so is killing it."

Of the autumn schedule, Locke thinks Sky One is particularly keen to match Channel 4's efforts in securing the 10pm slot. "It's aiming to try to win out at 10pm. There's a hunger across audiences for that slot," he says.

But Andy Jones, the joint chief executive at Universal McCann, thinks the problems Sky One is facing are linked to changing viewing habits.

"People are used to more specialised channels, be they sport, lifestyle or music. Does Sky One even get on the radar with a lot of viewers, especially in multichannel homes with so many to choose from? It's a problem for ITV1, too," he says.

However, Jones supports the strategy of going more upmarket. "ITV2 is not so upmarket, so it's a smart thing to do. As the demographic profile of multichannel broadens, it becomes older and more upmarket," Jones says.

But he echoes everyone's sentiments when he says: "Sky One has got to get it right this time."

YES - James Baker, controller, Sky One

"We want this to be perceived as a really good home of good TV. We're trying first and foremost to attract a more upmarket audience. If you take a cold look at Sky One's schedule versus five's, it sits strongly as a primetime schedule."

YES - Oliver Cleaver, European media director, Kimberly-Clark

"This is a good short-term fix for now. There's a difference between programming announcements and what the viewer does - programme acquisition is very difficult. But the blend and direction is right."

NO - Chris Locke, group trading director, Starcom

"Clients want entertainment/film/drama with quality. This is better than the summer schedule but it's not enough. The Sky One schedule is a bit like a blind man playing darts - it doesn't hit the target very often."

MAYBE - Andy Jones, joint chief executive, Universal McCann

"It's quite a good schedule to arrest any decline but the jury is still out. My issue is - and this is more of a generic problem for general entertainment programmes - are viewers attracted to that kind of channel any more?"

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