Media: Perspective - Why Virgin Media versus Sky became a battle for pub talk

The rare sight of two girls fighting in the playground used to enliven a boring school day. The boys cheering them on as they played dirty: pulling hair and scratching, while screaming insults.

With this in mind, the recent spat between Sky and Virgin Media has, like watching Arsenal and Chelsea players engaging in a bit of attempted fisticuffs during last Sunday's Carling Cup final, awakened nostalgic feelings.

The Sky/Virgin tussle will probably cause no real harm in the long term, with the odds in favour of the warring sides eventually entering into an uneasy truce. Yet the very public dispute between the two media groups over the cost of carrying Sky's basic channel package on Virgin Media threw up at least two interesting issues.

The first was Virgin's excellence at drawing a usually reticent Sky into a public slanging match. Virgin's stirring tactics, which worked for so many years in the airline market against British Airways, have drawn the debate over Sky's supposed dominance of the pay-TV market into the public domain, and have coincided with the Department for Trade and Industry calling for an investigation into the legitimacy of Sky's minority stake in ITV.

Second, it reopened the debate over the merits of "live" and "event" TV above those of pre-recorded or back catalogue TV via video on demand. As Virgin crowed about its capture of the rights to show the first three series of Lost on its video-on-demand service, Sky went on the counter to argue that watching a "talked-about" series months after it was first broadcast has less value to advertisers or viewers.

Jeremy Darroch, Sky's finance director, who is either fond of Sunday drinking or pushing an argument to its limits, argued that you want to be "down the pub tonight" discussing Jack Bauer's antics in 24 rather than waiting three months for a repeat. Given that 24 first airs on Sky One at 9pm on a Sunday and finishes at 10pm, you'd be hard pushed to get down to the local before closing time, but then Darroch does have a point.

Sky's support for the benefits of "live" programming might sound bizarre given that it has been pushing its own PC- on-demand service, Anytime, so avidly and also talking up the time-shifting benefits of Sky+. But then it knows that the vast majority still watch new programmes live.

The future for TV, the bit that does something for advertisers anyway, still seems to revolve around these big "live" talked-about programmes. However, these are mainly ITV programmes, from Lewis to The X Factor, and Channel 4's Big Brother, rather than the likes of 24 and Lost. Although, when Sky can get two million viewers for the Carling Cup final, you know that multichannel has a big role to play in the fight to provide the buzz in the pub.

ian.darby@haymarket.com.