Earth & Sky 

1 March 2005

Back in June 2004 I bought a house. Nothing amazing in itself, nor was the fact that it had a satellite dish attached to it – a fair few seem to have them these days.

Obviously I didn’t buy the house just because it had a dish: that would be just stupid. No, the dish was a bonus – albeit one that for a few months just sat there, unloved and unused, until I finally got round to finding a cheap, second hand Sky box.

And indeed, since then, it’s still sat there unloved and mostly unused – turned on only when I want to record something from my Freeview box and watch something else at the same time, or when I get bored and want to flick around to see if there’s anything worthwhile watching.

The answer to that question is usually a resounding ‘no’, and the reason is simple: channel content quality.

When Sky’s free-to-air package was announced in mid-2004 – a box, remote, dish and installation for just £150 – it was hyped by the press as a ‘Freeview killer’: Sky taking on the plucky OnDigital replacement at its own game. Others saw it as an attempt to ensure the BBC’s proposed Freesat project never made it to launch.

Whatever the reasons, in reality the Sky offering was released quietly, then promptly forgotten by all – just like the £120 package that preceded it (the extra £30 on the new package paying for the viewing card).

For Sky, promoting the package is simply not a priority. Free-to-air installations don’t bring in the monthly revenue; and the cost of the box, dish and someone to install it would mean that Sky would be losing cash with each customer.

But even if they did promote it, there isn’t really anything to promote. While there are nominally 120 or so channels, once you get beyond the statutory BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five, they’re mostly a ragbag collection of shopping channels, religious channels – and, of course, stations dedicated one solitary aim: extracting money from the viewer via premium-rate phone lines.

Witness the rise of channels inviting you to count the number of triangles in a picture in return for a slim chance of winning a prize. Or where you can spend a pound just to see your name on screen. Or indeed – the logical extension of all this – where you can spend a pound to text someone sitting on-screen pouting at you in a black bra. Oh, and don’t forget you can chat to her mate on the premium-rate phone line as well.

The utopian vision of the multichannel TV market peddled by those in favour of deregulation includes of lots of small channels offering niche operations for all kinds of viewers. But the current marketplace has lots of small channels, but seemingly no one willing to view them. Niche channels like arts station Performance, and Classics TV (a station seemingly dedicated to playing old films from VHS tapes) are increasingly relying on teleshopping or premium-rate quiz/text content to help pay the bills, because ads alone will not pay the way. And while some stations seem to be able to manage, a channel dedicated to reality TV probably isn’t the kind of niche the free marketers had in mind.

Of those 120 channels listed on the ‘Freesat from Sky’ (as they call it to avoid infringing the BBC’s ‘Freesat’ trademark) website, just 27 are listed in the ‘Entertainment’ category, and seven of those are predominantly based around premium-rate phone number programming or gambling. Even the ‘Specialist’ section of the website lists a plethora of home shopping stations: while Broadband TV may sound like a good niche station for broadband users, it’s nothing more than a 24/7 advertorial for NTL.

It’s not hard to ask exactly what many of these ventures are really offering the TV viewer. And if they’re not offering it to such an extent that there’s so little money that the broadcasters have to resort to quizzes and twenty-year-old babes in their underwear, what was all this television created for?

There was a time when quality was what counted in the world of television. Of course it was a time of limited channels and limited ability to get your station on the air, but just as the free marketers have their utopian vision, so do those of us who favour a more regulated television world. But that world doesn’t exist: nowadays its a numbers game, and as long as Friendly TV et al can keep on air by pumping out requests for you to phone their expensive phone number – and more importantly, persuade people to phone in – they’ll stay on air.

But it has to be said, a Freeview killer doth not them make.

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Liverpool, Monday 20 May 2024