MEDIA

The Sky-watchers

Rupert Murdoch plunges into British TV

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 27 1989
MEDIA

The Sky-watchers

Rupert Murdoch plunges into British TV

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 27 1989

The Sky-watchers

MEDIA

Rupert Murdoch plunges into British TV

Its supporters say that it is nothing less than a revolution in British broadcasting. At 6 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 5, an Astra satellite stationed 22,300 miles over Zaïre, in Central Africa, began transmitting four new television channels. The launch of Sky Television—the newest component in the worldwide media empire of Australian-born businessman Rupert Murdoch—immediately doubled the number of channels available in Britain. But what the several thousand British viewers with the equipment needed to receive the new service saw was decidedly less than revolutionary: the first offering on Sky TV’s entertainment channel was a frothy American variety show with singer Dolly Parton as host.

Murdoch’s ambitious venture into what he labelled “television’s new age” promised to shake up British TV.

For seven years, the nation’s viewers have been accustomed to receiving just four channels—two operated by the publicly owned British Broadcasting Corp. and two run by independent compa2 nies. Sky’s debut opened a | new era in which Britons will f be offered what Canadians ^ now take for granted: an I almost unlimited choice of ° television channels. But from the start, it was clear that Murdoch will face both stiff competition and political opposition.

Industry analysts said that his company, News International PLC, may lose as much as $1 billion on Sky TV before it begins to turn a profit. And opposition politicians expressed concern that Murdoch, who owns five of Britain’s largest newspapers, now may be on his way to dominating broadcasting as well. Said Robert Marshall, associate director of the London marketing consultants CIT Research Ltd.: “There is going to be a battle royal over satellite TV—and somebody’s going to get hurt.”

Murdoch’s most pressing problem was that few people could watch Sky’s four channels— one each devoted to entertainment, sports, news and movies. Only about 60,000 of Britain’s 18 million homes have cable service that can carry all Sky channels. Other viewers must

buy individual satellite dishes and receivers at a cost of about $500 each. And even those willing to spend the money face a waiting period of at least a month for delivery because of delays in making the dishes.

As a result, only about 7,000 homes could receive Sky’s service via satellite last week. Still, company executives insisted that the tiny audience did not worry them. Andrew Neil, the executive chairman of Sky TV, who is also editor of the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times

newspaper, noted that there were only 200 television sets in Britain when the BBC began broadcasting in 1936. “You’ve got to get on air first,” said Neil. “People are never going to buy blank screens.”

Those who did manage to receive the new service saw a mixed bag of programs. The 24hour news channel bore marked similarities to the Atlanta-based Cable News Network. The entertainment service offered a handful of original variety and talk shows with British stars, along with a heavy dose of U.S. soap operas and venerable American situation comedies, including the I Love Lucy show and The Love Boat. That menu prompted critics to charge that Sky TV will lower the standards of British television. Murdoch dismissed those charges. “That is so English, class-ridden, snobbery-ridden,” he told reporters at Sky TV’s new headquarters on the western out-

skirts of London. Added Murdoch, who also plans to start up two pay TV channels in September: “I watch a lot of television. In America, there are 30 channels, amazing documentaries, excellent serials. When I arrive [in Britain], all I find on late at night is snooker.”

Indeed, Sky executives maintain that their new service is nothing less than an assault on what they describe as the cozy world of British broadcasting, which is dominated by the BBC and the 15 companies that comprise the privately owned Independent Television Network. Many of the personnel hired to operate Sky are non-English, including Australians, Americans, Scots and Canadians. “We’re not part of the London media establishment,” said director of corporate affairs Jonathan Miller, who was himself bom in Weybum, Sask., of British parents and raised mostly in the United States. “They don’t like the fact that we’re outsiders, that we didn’t go to the same schools as they did and don’t belong to their clubs. They hate us—but we don’t care.”

Still, Sky TV must overcome more than the disdain of critics if it is to survive. Industry analysts predicted that Murdoch’s News International PLC will lose about $300 million this year on the service. At the same time, other companies are entering the field. British Satellite Broadcasting, a consortium that includes several major communications companies, says that it plans to launch a three-channel satellite service in September. To complicate matters for consumers, viewers outside of areas served by cable will have to buy separate satellite dishes for that service as well. Most analysts say that the British market cannot support both services—and that only one will survive after a costly battle. But regardless of who wins that fight, British viewers will still have access to a wider choice on their screens.

ANDREW PHILLIPS in London