MEDIA FORUM: Sky programming struggles to win high ground - How successful was Elisabeth Murdoch’s tenure as Sky’s UK programmer-in-chief? Should Sky just stick to what it’s best at and leave content to others, Alasdair Reid asks

’We want to get across the message that Sky is fundamentally a content producer as much as a digital platform,’ Elisabeth Murdoch stated a few weeks back. ’For too long we were our own worst enemy. We talked about what we had rather than what we created. Sky Movies was just a funnel for American output.’

’We want to get across the message that Sky is fundamentally a

content producer as much as a digital platform,’ Elisabeth Murdoch

stated a few weeks back. ’For too long we were our own worst enemy. We

talked about what we had rather than what we created. Sky Movies was

just a funnel for American output.’

Interviews given during her tenure as the managing director of Sky

Networks, Sky’s UK programming arm, are peppered with such quotes.

Here’s another one, from October 1998, a matter of days after the launch

of Sky Digital: ’My job has been to ensure there is plenty on the Sky

channels for everybody - whatever their age, interests or personal

style. I have commissioned 15 new series on the movie service alone,

including Barry Norman’s film show ... When Sky One started we just did

not have the money to make our own programmes. We could afford to buy in

The X Files but back then I could not afford to make something like

Ibiza Uncovered.

It has to be a matter of stages. When you grow, you can start investing

and making programmes in Britain.’

When Murdoch resigned last week to join an as-yet-unnamed venture, there

were media commentators queuing round the block to bear witness to her

outstanding talent. But did she deliver? After all, Barry Norman’s film

round-up and Ibiza Uncovered do not a career make.

Her challenge was to broaden the appeal of satellite television in

general while focusing particularly on Sky One. Her task was to make it

look and feel more like BBC1 or ITV than an offshore colony inhabited by

The Simpsons and Friends. How did she do? Is Sky still just a funnel?

And does it matter if it is?

John Blakemore, the UK advertising director of Smith-Kline Beecham (an

advertiser that targets an audience heavily skewed towards female

demographics and thus a big supporter of ITV) believes that Sky One

still has a lot of work to do. He states: ’They continue to miss out on

a large and important section of the population and I don’t think

they’ve done much that’s new to target female audiences in recent years.

My feeling is that they haven’t done very much in terms of home-grown

product either. This is definitely an issue Sky has to address because,

despite the growth of digital subscriptions, I think there is still a

large number of homes where female resistance to satellite remains

strong and that will continue to be a factor with implications for

penetration and subscription growth.’

But Nick Theakstone, the head of broadcast at Media-Vest, points out

that Sky must be doing something right - digital satellite has attracted

not just converts among existing subscribers but has added one million

new homes as well. He comments: ’You have to be wary of audience

comparisons because last March digital wasn’t being measured and ITV was

putting out a strong schedule. But the audiences for this March appeared

to be good and Sky One’s performance is better than the performance of

the news and sport channels. And although Sky’s penetration is strongest

against younger demographics, Sky One’s performance against all adults

is up 7 per cent year on year.

’Of course it’s true that, despite massive promotional support, The

Strangerers flopped dismally. But other things such as British Tribes

and Prickly Heat have done pretty well and they have some interesting

stuff like a new Harry Enfield vehicle coming along. So my feeling is

that it’s doing pretty well. Maybe you could broaden its audience appeal

but Sky is a channel with a young audience and that’s its point of


Chris Boothby, the broadcast director of BBJ, also thinks Murdoch did a

good job. He comments: ’Whichever way you look at it, Sky One in

particular is a far stronger channel now than when she arrived. Yes,

there have been failures but I think it’s the acid test of your maturity

as a channel if you are prepared to have failures - provided you are

fleet enough of foot to deal with them when they come along. It’s true,

it still has a bit of a problem with upmarket female audiences but that

can’t be addressed with a quick fix.

Across most target markets, though, Sky has to be on the schedule these

days - and you couldn’t have said that a couple of years ago.’

David Elstein, the chief executive of Channel 5, doesn’t agree. And as

he was previously Sky’s director of programming, he has a pretty good

feel for the issues involved. He states: ’All of the Sky channels have

gone through a horrendous time in terms of viewing share over the last

couple of years but how much that’s down to Elisabeth Murdoch is hard to

say. The movie channels have had their audience cannibalised by new

channels but it’s also due to poor scheduling. They’ve tried to make

original movies, but they’ve made virtually no impact against the

totality of the movies they show. It’s true that they’ve had some

successes on Sky One - they deserve credit for sticking with Dream Team

for instance - but on the other hand there’s The Strangerers. The

overall feel is that they continually clutch at so many things, only a

few of which have worked.’

The odd thing about all of this is the fact that, however aggressively

the UK’s cultural establishment may like to sneer at the very idea,

Rupert Murdoch’s organisation is one of the most innovative

programme-makers in the world. That’s especially so in the US where the

Fox film studios in Hollywood lies at the heart of a network of

programme-making divisions. Apparently that expertise doesn’t succeed in

crossing the Atlantic.

Elstein points out that Sky’s UK commissioning budget is too small to

make any contribution to viewing share. In the US, Fox has hundreds of

millions to spend - episodes of The X-Files, for instance, come in at

dollars 1.5 million a time. That’s serious money, but Fox is

broadcasting to 90 per cent of the US public, while Sky has 30 per cent

of the UK.

He adds: ’Maybe they have made a tactical error here in accepting the

value system of their critics. Ownership of content is irrelevant to the

success of Sky. What they do brilliantly is retail programming. What is

the point of trying to replicate BBC1 and ITV? Sky is operating in an

entirely different business and they should be trying to complement

terrestrial channels.

They were clearly stung by criticism but I think it’s important that

they get their priorities right. They are serving the Sky customer, not

the Royal Television Society.’

Headliner, p26.


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