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Sky's hooks

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Will Gompertz | 14:43 UK time, Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Guardian ran an article on Monday about Richard Desmond's acquisition of Five, the TV channel: a 1,700-word piece that took two journalists to write.

Sean Bean playing Eddard Stark in the HBO production of Game of ThronesI'm not surprised. It was probably the only way to get two people's hands working the keyboard, as they were both clearly holding their noses at the time.

Richard Desmond attracts the sort of "Oh gawd, anybody but him" media reaction that used to be the meted out to Rupert Murdoch, the Sun-loving mogul who might not have won over all his critics, but who now has their respect.

So, the news today that Sky has signed a five-year deal with HBO to screen its back-catalogue and future programmes when existing deals expire has caused little consternation and been largely well received.

It strikes me as a canny move. Sky is currently making money and adding subscribers in a tough market and at a rate that few predicted. It has successfully broken the resolve of the middle classes who hide the tell-tale dish behind Aga flues and wisteria and can now watch sport and The Simpsons to their hearts' content while telling their neighbours about the joys of Sky Arts - of which there are many.

Sky is now targeting the next raft of the "I would never give Murdoch a penny of my money" brigade, to do just that. So buying up the rights to HBO's archive which contains some of the best television made in the last decade - with intelligent storylines and exquisite production which provoke intense philosophical chat in the drawing rooms of Hampstead - should help do the trick.

And when they do subscribe, they will find out, like that rest of us, that Sky is good. I think it was Sam Chisholm who was asked, in the early days of Sky, how it was that the broadcaster had transformed the experience of watching sport on television when the BBC and ITV had enjoyed the rights for years but never innovated in the way Sky had. "Oh, that's simple," he is reported as saying, "it's the only thing we had".

Some might say that of the £878m profits reported this morning, more could be invested in original programming, but I suspect that's not really Sky's game.

It is rights management that lies at the heart of Sky's success. Today's reports are suggesting that Sky paid £150m over five years for the rights to the HBO programme base. If that figure is correct, it would seem to be a good piece of business. For that, it's getting five years' worth of guaranteed hits - season eight of Curb Your Enthusiasm is currently being made - that appeals to a demographic the broadcaster wants to grow.

To make new programmes of that quality and quantity, with no guarantee of success, would cost significantly more and wouldn't benefit from the "brand glow" of HBO. What Sky will do, as it has with its treatment of sport and latterly the arts, is to add value through technology, promotion and packaging.

It's a winning formula at the home box office.


  • Comment number 1.

    Will, "a 1,7000-word piece" ? [Typo!!!]

    Out by a factor of ten - too many zeros - come to think of it perhaps that is where Channel 5 is heading!

    Channel 5 has always been betwixt and between - my guess is that where it will remain. His aim must surely be to improve viewing figures with an increase of an high value demographic so that more valuable advertising can be sold. RTL certainly failed to comprehend or get a grip of the UK market - perhaps this was due to its parent's overly Germanic outlook (i.e. Bertelsmann) Bertelsmann remains a very very powerful media group and I cannot think that it does not still have ambitions in the UK market - just that Channel 5 did not fit.

    As to the Sky/HBO deal hmm I really don't know if the deal was/is really good for either. It helps Sky move away from sports but I don't think Sky knows how to market anything but sports so I do wonder if it will be able to capitalise on its new relationship. Certainly the public impression of Sky is sports and not much else - so it is a risk for both Sky and HBO. HBO does not have a distinct UK profile (as it does in the States) so I do wonder about the deal.

    To get satellite broadcasting from BSkyB "up market" will require a miracle and certainly absolutely a termination of the involvement with Rupert Murdoch - if he or any family member remains then the drawing rooms will simply ignore any and every Sky offering - he has burnt far too many bridges for one lifetime! If News Corp would sell its 40% stake, then BSkyB will have a far improved chance of success. [They will also need to completely unbundle every channel so customers can pick what they want - not as now to get what you want you are forced to have an enormous quantity of product that customers see as dross. In fact a revolution in BSkyB's sales strategy.]

  • Comment number 2.

    "It has successfully broken the resolve of the middle classes"

    I notice you didn't provide any evidence for this, I would say that's because its clearly not true. Sky still has a very poor reputation among the "middle class".

    People have Sky because of Premier League football. That is all.

  • Comment number 3.

    Sky will need to be broken in half before I spend my hard-earned dosh lining the Murdochs' pockets.

    It is to all intents and purposes a monopoly.

    However, I might buy shares in order to recoup some of my donation to the idle and feckless - who seem to be readily able to afford the rather expensive subscription.

  • Comment number 4.

    I couldn't care less about sport - Sky can have it all.

    I'll miss Curb Your Enthusiasm, but the more recent series have been very weak compared with the first four, so I won't really miss them.

    Does Sky offer anything that would tempt me to subscribe. No, not yet. I have no desire to pay to watch adverts. I can see everything I want on free to air European satellites (the Astra 1 cluster at 19.2° east et al). No need to stick with what Sky or Freesat want me to digest.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    (just as a follow-up comment - A GAME OF THRONES is a joint BBC-HBO production, so hopefully that means it will get a BBC screening)

  • Comment number 7.

    Well as a signed up member of the "ill never give my money to him" brigade this upsets me, a lot.

    murdoch is a real-life mr burns imho and all this will encourage me to do is buy more dvd boxsets

    sadly HBO is the only company to consistently turn out TV programmes of a decent quality, infact way above the level of holywood blockbusters that dont even come close to the sopranos, deadwood, the wire etc etc
    and far beyond the quality of most of skys output

    what hurts most is that I love Game of Thrones and I cant wait for HBOs version, so putting that picture of Sean Bean up there is a kick in the teeth for me

    it is a shrewd move by murdoch, but he wont get me into his evil empire, fox news- glen beck is enough to keep me away!
    unfortunately his evil schemes will work and capture the souls of a great many.

  • Comment number 8.

    Richard Desmond buying Channel 5 and Rupert Murdoch buying HBO's output... What can one say, really? Desmond I couldn't describe in words that wouldn't get me moderated the hell out of here; Murdoch, pretty much the same, really.

    As a committed Rupertphobic I wouldn't give money to the Murdoch empire if my life depended upon it. I would hope that Desmond at least has the gumption not to fool about with Channel 5 too much, although I suspect that he'll be offering us all manner of tat as an excuse for cost-cutting before the month is out.

    Like most of the people I know, sport is an irrelevance and I would indeed celebrate if football ceased to exist tomorrow. Murdoch and Desmond are just two more reasons to give up watching TV in any form. I admire and appreciate the BBC for what it does and the way it does it on TV, radio and the Internet. The commercial stations can never compete, but, then, people like me are not their market.

    I tried a couple of months ago to give Sky a chance but the content is hopeless, expensive and filled with commercials and the presentation is too American, too brash, too amateurish.

    Mr Desmond is the owner of a couple of tabloids and several porn channels.

    I rest my case.

  • Comment number 9.

    I will go against the general trend here stand up for Sky. I agree that they are mostly considered a sports broadcaster, but that is possibly due to the public showing of football etc. in pubs and clubs. The quality of their sports coverage is second to none as is evident when other non-subscription channels cover European football games the pundits often show how ignorant of the rules they really are. Also look at how limited the BBC's coverage of our Golf Open Competitions. Coverage starts late on in the day (relatively speaking to the start), spends much of the time interviewing when live play is going on, darts around different channels or 'red button' options, and as in the case of today's Ladies open lags some 10 minutes behind the play, purporting it to be live. This did confuse me as I was watching the scores on the internet and players on TV were 'just putting on the 16th' when the live score told me she had finished. Commentary is however excellent.
    The exception to this lack of quality being athletics where the BBC are the best provider.
    I do not care who produces the programs, but look to content, and Sky1 in my opinion beats all-comers hands down. Add in their movie channels then any competition disappears into the sunset.
    As for being a conduit for other broadcasters then again they are top of my list. I also have cable TV and the choice is limited as well as the technical quality of their Electronic Programme Guide (EPG). The only benefit I get from this arrangement is cable's 'TV on demand' feature which is good although unwieldy to navigate at times.
    Adverts are a fact of life. I avoid them on those channels where the intrude too often by skipping past them on programmes I have recorded. Of course Sky movies are uninterrupted, whilst some free to air channels even have news programmes inserted in the middle.
    I feel there is some snobbery here regarding Sky, just as much as I would never buy a Daily Star or The Sun newspaper (mainly as they are imho trash) many people will not subscribe to Sky giving prejudice as a reason rather than cost. Sky offers so much more variety and quality that I think they need to rethink their attitude to this provider. Possibly a case of 'cutting of your nose to spite your face'.
    I must state that I do not work for Sky as this seems a sales pitch, but have had a Sky installation over 15 years now.

  • Comment number 10.

    How about you stop shovelling gold up Murdoch's backside and start remembering that the BBC is the best - it might not be fat and greedy and make gazillions of monies, but, it can certainly say that it has always set the standard.

    American TV is just well-organised, glossy and attractive.

    BBC TV has something very special, its just for you and me. Yes, thats right, we made it, it's ours. The envy of the world.

    "Why can't I watch iPlayer??" bleats a foreigner, why? Because they are not part of the best license paying public, I cant be arsed to proof read this but seriously, please start realising that comparing yourselves to the gated communities of billionaire broadcasters is a sign of WEAKNESS.

    Dont let the money men ruin TV.

    That is all.

  • Comment number 11.

    Do not diminish British culture is all I'm saying, you can hold your glasses to make yourself seem wise and knowing all you like, Mr.

  • Comment number 12.


    you slag off the beebs covergae of the open golf, but it started first thing in the morning and then started promptish in the weekend when things start getting its act together, the only reason why murdoch can show more sports is because majority of liscence fee payers (not including me) would be outraged if the beeb splashed out millions and millions more for sport coverage, it just cant compete on same level.

  • Comment number 13.

    Well, as a fully signed-up Sky subscriber, I'm very happy with the service they provide. Their sports coverage is (by far) the best in Britain, even allowing for adverts, and it goes without saying that their range of programming is beyond the wildest dreams of their competitors.

    Very, very much looking forwards to Game of Thrones; HBO are the best US network for top-range drama, and Sky have done well to ensnare their output for British consumption.

  • Comment number 14.

    2. At 5:33pm on 29 Jul 2010, Martin5000 wrote:

    .......People have Sky because of Premier League football. That is all.


    I don't know the figures, but I suspect that the majority of Sky customers don't have Sky sports.

    3. At 5:36pm on 29 Jul 2010, Sensatus wrote:

    .......However, I might buy shares in order to recoup some of my donation to the idle and feckless - who seem to be readily able to afford the rather expensive subscription.


    My subscription costs only slightly more than the BBC annual "tax" Included in the sky price I get hundreds of channels, a PVR and free high speed broadband.

  • Comment number 15.

    I think that despites Sky's proffesional sports output and excellent technical features (just try living without Sky+) the jewel in the British broadcasting crown has the be the BBC. Have you ever been to the United States and seen the fare that US viewers have to contend with? The licence fee is worth every penny in my view.

  • Comment number 16.

    We gave up on TV completely about 3yrs ago, and yes I have had Sky, Virgin, and before that Freeview.

    All of it is utter dross, 100+ channels of endless repeats with few exceptions, Big Bruvver, Talentless shows full of idiots showing off there non talent. With very few exceptions there was not a lot worth the licence fee and I don't mean BBC content, I mean the fact that you are required by law to buy a TV licence to watch Live Broadcast TV.

    I have now circumvented that requirement, I watch the BBC progs on IPlayer after they are broadcast, Top Gear, QI, Mock the week and a few others. ITV content is complete dross and not worth the candle so I dont bother with it at all. As for anything else, I get my fix of NCIS and CSI direct from the USA via web streams and downloads.

    TV no thanks, Sky forget it.

  • Comment number 17.

    Yes Sky marketing is pure genius - who else could make millions of people pay to watch masses of adverts?

    However as a previous subscriber (yes I admit it) I fail to see how buying up HBO productions is going to attract anyone? For the cost of a single monthly subscription you can buy the DVD boxsets of fantastic HBO programmes such as Band of Brothers and The Wire - you can watch the when you like and your life does not ebb away with the the interminable ad breaks.

  • Comment number 18.

    Why would I subscribe to Sky if I don't watch sport? I love HBO - but buying the odd DVD series collection makes far more sense than £300 plus a year in subs costs!!!

  • Comment number 19.

    Sky aren't getting all of HBO's shows - Curb Your Enthusiasm is staying on More 4, as is Hung. FX are keeping True Blood and Eastbound & Down.

  • Comment number 20.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 21.

    "they will find out, like that rest of us, that Sky is good"
    What a shallow world view.
    Buying in some good dramas doesn't make your right-wing propaganda "news" channel any more palatable. It doesn't reduce your owner's disproportionate influence over the government of a country of which he is not even a citizen. It doesn't alter the fact that many sports which used to be free-to-air and played by wealthy young men are now only available to those willing to subsidise those players becoming so rich they are destroyed by it. Even on an aesthetic level, it doesn't reduce the crassness of the blatant cross-advertising of different parts of the Murdoch empire or the ugliness of its colour scheme.
    Most personally to you, Will, it doesn't help those who want to defend the licence fee that pays your salary against those who think it preferable to pay at least 56% more - or at least 98% more to also get that "free" PVR, Spacey79 (is that really "slight"?) - to this pervasive, politicised multi-media juggernaut.
    I get more TV than I can watch for my licence fee, and if there's nothing on I listen to my radio or - shock horror - read a book or get a life in some other way. This middle-class man retains some resolve!

  • Comment number 22.

    Like several of the posters above, we unsubscribed from Sky a year ago. That a number of discriminating viewers are doing so would appear to make a better story. I may even unsubscribe to this feed unless there's some real art being discussed.

  • Comment number 23.

    I have been a Sky subscriber for many years but lately the contempt they show for their own subscribers is starting to make me think of leaving. I have only have SD non sky+ box and every big name program thats on started showing a large "Also in HD" badge in the corner ident. This then escalated to a screen-width black bar that distorts the picture to tell me to change channel to watch in HD (which I don't have) and in the case of the final episode of Lost the entire image of the program I was 5mins into watching was shrunk to a quarter of the screen so I could see a staic ad for the finale. Its ridiculous, every ad-break starts and ends with Skys own ads to watch this weeks event shows in HD, I'm perfectly aware I can get Sky HD. I'm paying them a fair sum of money to watch TV with adbreaks in, not to then ruin the actual shows with massive intrusive adverts aswell. I am seriously tempted now to dump it and spend the money I save on iTunes or Boxsets instead. I'm paying them for content not ads, unlike the equally annoying but more justifiable ads now in Youtube.

  • Comment number 24.

    I've never read so much pompous b------t in all my life. The BBC and high quality television hardly go together. Soap operas, talent shows, second rate drama. Most of the comments here follow the true Reithian philosophy of 'we know whats best for everyone'. At least with SKY I have the choice, if I don't like it I can cancel my subscription, but even though I don't watch much BBC output I still have to pay my licence fee.

  • Comment number 25.

    Not matter what Sky does I just cannot give my money to Rupert Murdoch or any of his schemes. He stands for everything I am against.

  • Comment number 26.

    II can scarcely believe my eyes reading this puff to SKY, which belongs to the pages of one of Murdoch’s so called newspapers rather than on this site.
    To praise SKY for removing any hope of terrestrial viewers seeing some of the cream of the crop American shows in Sky’s usual “exclusive” deals beggars belief ,
    I suppose we ought to be grateful that as in the past we got to like an American series like Lost or House, on for its popularity to come to the attention of SKY who then outbid the current rights holders for up and coming series.
    So it seems that HBO are going the same way as live sporting events that are now a rare luxury on free to view terrestrial TV.
    The supine nature taken by politicians, the regulators, and other media outlets to the former Australian’s empire is such that this sort of pillaging gets barely a mention.
    SKY has eviscerated ITV and the BBC is now in his sights as barely a day goes by without the corporation coming under fire from his news outlets.
    This all is extremely worrying given the increasingly narrow media and cross media ownership that the UK enjoys. Murdoch’s announcement that he intends to bid for the remaining SKY shares after a meeting at Number 10, should be resisted and this neo american sent packing. But we know it won’t happen with the likes of Jeremy Hunt in charge.
    You cannot put the clock back and I am sure that there are many SKY viewers very happy with the service (at a premium price) they get.
    My concern is that the rest of us, who support the BBC and ITV et al are properly protected from the predations of global media empires that care little about the careful British media ecology that has served us so well over the last 70 years.

  • Comment number 27.

    what does Will like so much about sky? is it the biased news, which is as distorted as Fox News, the world´s worst news provider? The fair pricing to customers and competitors that they sell to? the edited content of the channels? That it´s owners are a credit to the human race and big business? as a humanitarian, i will not buy any service, ever, from Murdoch. I am glad i´m not the only one. I would suggest it is cheaper to buy hbo dvd´s than to pay the subcription necessary to watch them on sky, over the next five years.

  • Comment number 28.

    I'm still in mourning when Anglia TV became ITV1...the regional telly, the idents...(sniffle)

  • Comment number 29.

    Yes, another of the "Murdoch will never get my money" brigade here and also a lover of HBO. I'll buy second hand HBO box sets - I can wait for something good.

  • Comment number 30.

    This reads like the rubbish you'd normally expect to see in the daily mail. You should be reaching for the stars BBC, not playing in the gutter.

  • Comment number 31.

    Yeah because working class oiks don't know what good drama is, let alone being clever enough to appreciate it. Or should that be "affluent enough"?

  • Comment number 32.

    Isnt it sad that people on here somehow think BBC is high brow TV and Sky is for the "poorer classes". The snobbery on here is ridiculous.

    The BBC is dictated to by the government and therefore never reports the complete news just the dumbed down version of events.

    Sky news coverage and Sky sports coverage is far superior to any other media outlet.

    Skys acquisition of the rights to HBO programming is a brilliant move and will ensure good quality programmes on Sky and they will be far superior to anything on Terrestrial of free to air.

    Sky has gradually increased its subscribers from 2million in 2000 to near enough 10million in 2010 I think that tells a story in itself.

    More and more people wish they didnt have to pay a BBC license fee because the BBC programming and sports coverage is amateur.

  • Comment number 33.

    I for one thinks its great that HBO is coming to Sky - HBO make some real thought provoking adult entertainment and Sky has the perfect platform to show off these wonderful programmes - it would have been even better had the BBC bought the rights but Sky is a good second
    I really enjoy Sky for its in-depth coverage of football, latest US series and blockbuster movies
    I really enjoy the BBC for its home-made responsible multicultural coverage of all types of programming
    I liked Channel five for bringing the shield to the UK
    I must thank ITV for bringing monotony and averageness to our screens on a daily basis

  • Comment number 34.

    I find the snobbery on this subject truly remarkable. Presumably you have to live on benefits in a ramshackle council house to have SKY? And these would be the same people who watch Eastenders and the endless 'Celebrity' programmes and 'talent' shows churned out by the BBC. Have any of you ever seen the line up on BBC3 on an average evening? The choice is there for you to have subscription television or not - but if you choose not to dont think you are better than anyone else or become so outrageously pious because the BBC get outbid (again) for quality programming such as the HBO output.(Ah, HBO - a subscription channel if Im not mistaken)......

  • Comment number 35.

    As an ex Sky subscriber I certainly won't be going back. Hundred's of channels with nothing on and anything good ruined by the incessant advertising breaks. Not only that their customer service is appalling, their news coverage poor and biased ( they should have severely censured for their election reporting). As for sports, the so called jewel in the crown, their coverage is nothing to get excited about. It has always been a wonder to me that given the money they throw at it the coverage is just not that good. Bigging up the EPL at every opportunity appears to be the sole priority. As with others I will get my HBO either on streaming or by Box set. Sky is, was, and apparently always will be a cancer on the Television industry.

    NB I also think that the future of TV lies on the net and that Sky's satellite service may soon go the way of the dinosaurs. Maybe I'm just hoping of course.

  • Comment number 36.

    Just left Sky as I refused to have my bill increased to fund this new venture for them. Now on a lovely Freesat system which is even better than Sky+. Granted only two HD channels at the moment, but as one is BBC HD I am not complaining in the slightest.

  • Comment number 37.

    Remember on terrestrial TV, the ad breaks were just enough time to make a cup of tea? In fact, that was the joke, it was so well-known that announcers would even tell you to go and put the kettle on! However, on Sky, during the ad breaks, you've got time to make a cup of tea, drink it, put on your coat and shoes, pop out to the local shop, buy some more milk, come back, hang up your coat and shoes, put the milk in the fridge, and be sitting back on your sofa before the programme continues... I know because I've actually done it.

    We cancelled our Sky subscription and got rid of the TV altogether a couple of weeks ago. Over the past year, there has been less and less shown that we actually want to watch, to the extent that over the last couple of months we haven't watched TV at all. What's the point of paying all that money, including the license fee, for a box that sits in the corner gathering dust? So when the license came up for renewal, it was an easy decision to make. And no, we're not some OAP's baffled by 'Yoof TV', I'm in my 40's and wife is in her 30's...

  • Comment number 38.

    "just as a follow-up comment - A GAME OF THRONES is a joint BBC-HBO production, so hopefully that means it will get a BBC screening"

    Not according to Wikipedia. There is no mention at all of BBC involvement.

    That's a good thing. The last thing American channels need is their involvement.

  • Comment number 39.

    konakimbers wrote:

    "it is a shrewd move by murdoch, but he wont get me into his evil empire, fox news- glen beck is enough to keep me away!"

    What does an American channel and an American presenter that primarily focuses on issues to do with America have to do with you in the UK?

  • Comment number 40.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 41.

    mriley11 wrote:

    "Have you ever been to the United States and seen the fare that US viewers have to contend with? The licence fee is worth every penny in my view."

    You mean like HBO?


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