“Hackgate” continues to move at speeds and in directions that few of us would ever have expected. Even when select committees have completed their analyses and ninja wives have flown back to the US, there is still the disturbing statistic revealed last week by Sue Akers, the senior Metropolitan Police officer handling the Met’s inquiries into hacking: that we are still scratching the surface when it comes to the volume of people affected by phone hacking.
One area where we the situation has moved on is in News Corp’s proposed acquisition for BSkyB, which has been bookended by controversy: latterly phone hacking, but formerly Vince Cable’s declaration of war on Murdoch, a comment that ended up costing Uk taxpayers around £300,000.
In all of this, BSkyB has been the affected entity: the unfortunate one that has been involved in the constant tussles, rather akin to a girl shouting at two drunken lads to stop fighting outside a nightclub at 3am. But, I came to praise BSkyB, not to bury it.
Sky is the gem of UK commercial broadcasting
It’s easy to see why News Corp would want to buy the 61 percent of shares in Sky it doesn’t own, and perhaps one could ask is why it was not a target for full acquisition sooner (although many in the UK assumed that Murdoch owned the thing anyway). The business is an absolute gem. In fewer than twenty years, it has developed an infrastructure which enables you to watch hundreds of channels – some in HD, some in 3D, and all from a time PVR. Mobile and PC viewing comes as standard with premium packages too.
Not only did that infrastructure give you the technology and the box that sits under your TV, but it also ripped out the first-generation set of Amstrad Fidelity dishes (remember them?) in order to build an entirely new digital TV service from scratch.
Let’s not beat about the bush here. BSkyB played a defining role in creating one of the most advanced digital television markets in the world: as owner and developer of probably the world’s best digital service, Sky Digital, as well as helping DTT to recover from its initial failure by being one of the first shareholders in Freeview. The company is less than two decades old.
Investor in content
While the platform and infrastructure are unquestionably significant achievements, the programming has offered differentiation rather than an attempt to compete head-on with the stalwarts. Much has been written about BSkyB’s lack of UK programming, and of course it’s true, although the acquisition of Flextech from Virgin Media has boosted it in this area.
However, its pursuance of difference is one that plays to the strengths of the platform: if the offerings on terrestrial channels are mediocre, then Sky Atlantic HD will provide something to be of interest. So, very early on, the business understood what we are now starting to accept in content strategy: that attention-grabbing content comes from anywhere.
Back to Hackgate, the role that Sky News has played in Hackgate has been absolutely first-class. It has taken an objective, clean, distant role in reporting issues that, until recently, have concerned its own business. The underlying tension in terms of News Corp’s bid has given it something of a kick up the arse: perhaps less the “BBC-lite” that Rupert Murdoch once, infamously, called it; now a rapid-response, objective, analytical channel
that deserves to be taken seriously.
It was, of course, Twitter that became the platform that has also carried around notable images and video clips, such as this one which did the rounds last week. While cute, it reflects an era which no longer exists. Quality is subjective and as we saw with the death of the ITV franchise model, regulated quality is highly subjective: ergo, a multi-channel environment that promotes inherent quality through choice. What became of the comedians in the clip? One ended up starring in Little Crackers, while the other became the world’s highest-paid TV actor for House. Both series air on Sky One, proving that times really have changed.
A letter in the Guardian suggests that a cheer for Sky News is “deeply unfashionable”. Well, to hell with fashion. We should give ourselves time to reflect on the fact that, almost 60 years after the launch of commercial television: we still have a wonderfully mixed economy: a strong and diverse BBC, a resurgent ITV and Channel 4, and a blossoming BSkyB. I am one of those that is passionately protective of the BBC but, then again, I am also very impressed by what BSkyB has done in this market.
News Corp has a minority shareholding and that’s fine, as News Corp’s troubles are News Corp’s and not BSkyB’s.
While there remain many developments to be uncovered in Hackgate, what we have for now, is a television market that is plural, backed by robust investment, and is something of a world-leader. It’s precious, and we shouldn’t let go of it.
Paul Squires is managing director of advertising agency Perera.