Media Forum: Will Sky One's revamp draw in viewers?

Sky One is not attracting enough viewers, so its revamp and high-profile new shows need to work hard. The first round of Sky's major investment programme is kicking in. As competition in the multichannel marketplace increases, its flagship entertainment channel Sky One is hoping to impress audiences and advertisers with a revamped identity and high-profile new shows.

It has pensioned off its trademark orange in favour of a glossier, more upmarket look for its idents. And its autumn schedule includes several US imports and some home-grown commissions.

The critically acclaimed Western, Deadwood, from HBO, tops the list.

The series, set in South Dakota, combines fictional and historical characters.

It stars an almost unrecognisable Ian "Lovejoy" McShane and airs on 21 September.

And Sky One is billing 4400 -where 4,400 abductees are returned by their alien captors - as "the must-see sci-fi series of the year". Meanwhile, the nerd-pleaser Battlestar Galactica has been refreshed to appeal "beyond the sci-fi genre". In other words, girlfriends might not switch off.

The autumn schedule also includes the UK-produced supernatural drama Hex and Long Way Round, a motorbike journey around the world with Ewan McGregor, alongside familiar Sky One fare such as Dream Team.

A football reality show, called The Match, launches in October. Presented by Ulrika Jonsson and Mark Durden-Smith, it features celebrities living and training at Newcastle United's Football Academy.

The big question is whether Sky One's shiny new shows can improve the channel's fortunes. Barb figures show that in July its share of viewing in multichannel homes was 2 per cent, down from 2.8 per cent the previous year. There are concerns that this difficulty in attracting audiences will cost Sky in its dealings with advertisers.

But James Baker, Sky One's controller, is confident. "We've put together a stack of shows I'm really proud of," he says.

And this is just the beginning, according to Baker. "We have opted to focus on quality. After two weeks of Nip/Tuck, we brought in an audience of nearly a million people who used to watch Friends and ER on Sky One and had forgotten about the channel.

Now we're looking at shows that can bring in more women. We need to explore the notion of being a premium entertainment channel by building a combination of shows. With Deadwood and 4400, we have a good start."

Yet there's no point in having great shows if poor scheduling prevents them from reaching the audiences for which they're intended. Mark Jarvis, the head of media at Carat, thinks that Sky One tends to shoot itself in the foot: "HBO has a track record of producing high quality programming such as The Sopranos, but whether HBO shows will translate into an immediate audience uplift for Sky One depends on scheduling. Sky spent an awful lot of money on marketing 24, but then moved it from Sunday night. Thursday night at 10pm is never going to attract the same kind of audience."

There might be another problem. Channels such as E4 have, to some degree, stolen Sky One's lunch by bidding for the hot US imports. "There's no doubt that Sky One's programme acquisition strategy has struggled in the face of much stronger competition from other channels," Jarvis says.

Freeview has been a particular thorn in Sky One's side. Viewers are now accessing multichannel through a one-off payment but Sky One isn't on the platform. Bernard Balderston, the associate media director at Procter & Gamble, says: "Freeview has made significant platform gains and is progressing much faster than Sky One.

Sky has elected not to put Sky One on to the platform and I don't think it will. James Murdoch has set a target of ten million Sky households by 2010 and Sky needs to consider that as a major objective. So they don't want to put a subscription-led channel on to a platform which is effectively free. But if people are going to pay for TV, you have to provide an attractive product."

And Sky is clearly hoping that the new programming will make it a more enticing channel. Nick Theakstone, the managing director of Group M , says: "At the moment, Sky One is not a good enough reason to buy Sky.

Sky needs to increase the channel's profile in terms of producing talked-about television.

"Sky One has tremendous potential, but it's not living up to its full capacity because it's not delivering quality programmes or ratings. They've been given long enough to deliver on Sky One. Now it's time to come up trumps."

- "I'd love to think that in two years' time, people will say 'did you see that show on Sky One? It's great. Check it out.' We need to explore the notion of being a premium entertainment channel and we want to trickle in an older, more aspirational audience."

- James Baker controller, Sky One

- "The new look is about focusing a marketing effort toward a different set of people. Penetration levels have been flattening off and a significant proportion of the population don't have Sky. The new look and schedule have to go with an increased subscriptions drive."

- Mark Jarvis head of media, Carat

- "A healthy Sky One is important for advertisers because more people are in multichannel homes and Sky One is the main channel for targeting female viewers. If Sky One doesn't get it right, it'll keep trying. There's a major commitment to making it work."

- Bernard Balderston associate media director, P&G

- "Everyone wants Sky One to deliver and we're hoping that some of these programmes will do that. The multichannel world is becoming increasingly competitive. Autumn 2004 is a key period and we'll be looking closely to see how successful it is."

- Nick Theakstone managing director, Group M.

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