Murdoch to the rescue 

1 September 2001

The LWT experiment was a disaster. People from the BBC who thought they knew popular tastes better than ITV did joined in an unholy alliance with those who believed that there was so much money washing around in the system that a profit was there for the taking, no matter what programmes were shown. Within months, London Weekend was facing bankruptcy. They needed a saviour, and they found him in Rupert Murdoch.

Within a few months, Murdoch would be back out the door, removed in a blind panic by the ITA, his company-saving programme schedule torn up and the company itself left to try to survive on its own. From this, the industry had always assumed, came Murdoch’s hatred of quality British television and his determination to destroy it and the system that created it.

The industry has assumed wrong. With preconceived ideas based upon his awful popularist newspapers and apparent monopolistic media intentions, those in favour of quality television have banded together with those who most fear competing with the mighty News International. They point with glee at the original Sky Channel and its diet of sixties and seventies American repeats, dubbed euromovies and pop music filler items and pretend that Sky One is nothing more than a continuation of this.

But they are most definitely wrong. Murdoch the newspaper baron and Murdoch the television executive are almost completely different people. Murdoch’s revised schedule for LWT did move the heavyweight arts programming out of peaktime and into the late evenings or mid-afternoons. But this huge crime was nothing more than remodelling LWT’s schedules to the defining and successful ones of ABC and Rediffusion, who had kept their arts programming out of peak, but used peaktime profits to subsidise the programmes themselves. This is not only sensible, but also the only course of action available when a station is threatened with bankruptcy.

Murdoch’s detractors point to Sky Channel in error as well. The original Sky Channel existed before Murdoch appeared and its early schedules were more the brainchild of the famous Ward Thomas of Trident and Grampian. Making use of cheaply available material, they provided a loss-leader service aimed at Europe as a whole rather than the UK. The idea was the same as the internet start-ups today – be the first to be the biggest when it all takes off.

The conversion of Sky Channel from a multinational endeavour into a UK-only organisation is credited with the destruction of BSB, the IBA’s attempt to slam the stable door after the satellite had bolted. Again, Murdoch’s enemies point to the death of BSB as being the fault of Sky for competing with it. The analogue PAL pictures were cheaper to produce than BSB’s ill-fated D-Mac technology, the decoders less expensive, the services were offered free to dish owners but largely subscription-based for those with a squariel. This, however, sounds like competition – exactly what BSB said it was to provide against the four terrestrial channels. That BSB should be happy to compete on someone else’s turf, but not on its own, says much about the British way of doing business.

BSB failed, and rightly so, because of its own ineptitude. Sky hastened this demise but did not cause it. The merger between Sky Television and British Satellite Broadcasting has parallels with the merger between TWW and WWN in the mid-sixties – a rescue operation that actually saved more than it lost and set the newly created company up to achieve greatness. The complaints that Sky allowed no competition are nonsense – nobody wanted to compete, and Murdoch cannot be blamed for others not having the guts or the deep pockets that he had available.

But the ghost of Sky Channel, that unforgotten hint of trashiness, still clings to Sky Digital, as it is today. Many families choose an inferior competitor or go without digital choice because they fear the waves of crap breaking over them from Sky the moment they turn the box on.

Yet, Murdoch has not lost his touch. You won’t find arts programming in primetime on Sky One. But then, why would you want to? Instead, you’ll find it practically 24-hours a day on other channels on the Sky system. You won’t find an in-depth history programme on Sky One, either. But again, why would you look to entertainment channels for this when it can be found on the Sky-subsidised History Channel or on UK Horizons, Discovery and a dozen or so more channels devoted to factual information?

Popular wisdom (an oxymoron) has it that Sky is Sky One and nothing more. Thus educated people turn to ITV Digital to expand their choice and avoid unwanted cheap television. But here is the irony that runs through this scenario: ITV Digital has very limited space, so only the popular and populist channels get room. Sky Digital has almost infinite space, allowing minority interests to thrive.

One wonders who should be accusing whom of dumbing-down British television?

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Liverpool, Saturday 20 July 2024