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Greg Grimmer 

Over the pond TV - the unstoppable rise of Sky

Greg Grimmer

Greg Grimmer says HBO has built a paid-for subscription business in the US by producing high-quality drama - a feat not managed by Sky or indeed anyone else in the UK. Sky's belated response to this has not been to try and re-create the formula with UK talent tub, but to import in its entirety - I give you Sky Atlantic. So well done to Sky for the next phase of its world domination and farewell to free-to-view high-quality US dramas on the BBC, ITV & C4...

The proliferation of television channels since the advent of satellite and cable in the late 80's has given broadcasters (not normally) known for their love of marketing some testing problems.  Suddenly it wasn't just about the content, the old adage that 'people watch programmes not channels' just wasn't true in the arena of a 400 channel EPG .

Then clever marketers got involved and spawned the likes of Dave, Blighty and Yesterday, leaving the family numbered channels looking slightly tawdry and dull. 

It used to be a 'build it and they will come' strategy for programme makers, this then turned into a 'buy it and they will come' for the lazier programme directors as they imported (normally but not exclusively from the US) tried and tested dramas from other markets - including ITV, the BBC and most notably Channel 4.

Now Sky - or should I say BSkyB (at least while there are still other shareholders) - had circumvented this problem in a number of interesting an successful ways. Firstly, and of course most controlling, is the control of the hardware - that little set top box (does anyone still put it on top of their new plasma set?) gave them the ability to ensure branding of the television service and not just the broadcast stream.

This has been augmented by Sky+ and more recently HD and 3D. It also gave them further control through the design, numbering and interactivity of the EPG. But we all know what Sky is really known for and what accounts for its fantastic growth story of the past two decades - sport and within that football and within that the Premier league.

Various competitors have come and gone over the 20 years and most have left with their tales between their legs and their wallets emptied - ITV digital and  Setanta both failed to break the stranglehold on football and paid for it with their businesses.

However, while sport is obviously content (and arguably the best content we export?), Sky has tried and failed over the last twenty years to break out from sport as its raison d'être.  Sky Movies/Box Office have some fans but have always been overshadowed by DVDs (or videos before them). Meanwhile, Sky One is still a vehicle for the Fox-produced Simpsons and not much else.

Elizabeth Murdoch (before her success with Shine) was one of many content directors who failed to grab hold of the Sky branded channels to create anything approaching the distinctive look and feel of the BBC, Channel 4 or even ITV - whose domination of the 'Big and Live' Saturday night is often over-looked by naysayers of that particular broadcast brand. Various British-produced comedies, dramas and entertainment shows have fallen unloved from the Sky schedules. I personally wept at the demise of  Harry Enfield on his short run on Sky before gloriously re-claiming him as he returned to the BBC in his Harry and Paul guise .

So what of now.  I will return to The Simpsons as my inspiration (and perhaps the inspiration of a Sky scheduler). A running gag throughout the jaundiced family story is every time anyone checks into a hotel, talks about cable TV or acknowledges TV, they will make a gag about HBO and how it always costs more / isn't included / isn't available.

So why is this relevant... well my dear reader, HBO have built a paid-for subscription business in the US built not on sport or even movies but by producing high quality drama, with Hollywood A-list casts and behind-the-camera support. A feat not managed by Sky or indeed anyone else in the UK.

Sky's belated response to this has been not to try and re-create the formula with UK talent tub, but to import in its entirety with a rebrand of its EPG - the best channel rebrand since Dave.

I give you Sky Atlantic.

After its launch on 1 February, one of my HMDG colleagues announced: "I've series linked the whole channel... It's that good."

And sure the content is superlative. From the new Boardwalk Empire and Blue Bloods, through to classic dramas like The Sopranos and Entourage, to the genius that is Curb Your Enthusiasm... and that is before the new series of Mad Men even starts.

But for me the real genius of Sky Atlantic is the branding - the fact that most of the content will have been conceived, written, shot and financed on the Pacific coast is irrelevant.

Sky Atlantic at a stroke makes us Brits think of the closeness of the one-sided special relationship, of NY-Lon, of US citizens finding our accent and manners sexy and suave. Had this channel been called Sky Hollywood, Sky USA, SKY America or even HBO UK, the love and affection I have heard from all corners for this new addition to the EPG would be lessened .

So well done to Sky for the next phase of its world domination and farewell to free-to-view high quality US dramas on the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

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