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Critic: ‘Sky’s gazumping is killing drama imports’

A television critic has suggested that Sky’s practice of buying up the later seasons of non-UK television programmes that had already proved themselves popular with UK audiences on free-to-air channels is preventing such shows from reaching a substantial audience in the UK.

Writing in left-leaning weekly politics, culture, and international affairs magazine New Statesman, James Cooray Smith says that Sky’s latest deal with US cable network Showtime is another example of how it buys up seasons of non-UK programmes popular with UK audiences on free-to-air channels.

“All of Showtime’s new programming, including the Twin Peaks revival, will air exclusively on Sky Atlantic, in an arrangement seemingly modelled on Sky’s longstanding deal with HBO (the makers of Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones),” he notes.

“This is a shame. It means that, as with HBO’s programming, Showtime’s is now effectively prevented from reaching a substantial audience in the UK,” he states, adding that when Sky’s deal with AMC’s Mad Men kicked in between series, the programme lost three quarters of its UK audience as it switched from BBC Four to Sky Atlantic. “By season six, Mad Men was pulling in 58,000 viewers. Those are the numbers you’d expect for a channel rotating listlessly through music videos in the afternoon,” he suggests, adding that it was later estimated that, given the high cost of acquiring Mad Men versus the number of people watching it, each viewer was costing Sky around £5 (€6.58) an episode.

“Mad Men is an example of a decades-long pattern of Sky’s gazumping in the television import market, buying up the later seasons of non-UK television programmes that had already proved themselves popular with UK audiences on free-to-air channels. Star Trek: The Next Generation (series one to three on BBC Two, series four to seven on Sky One or Sky Movies) is probably the earliest example. Friends is the most notable,” he suggests.

He acknowledges that Game of Thrones has only ever aired on Sky and is a big hit for Sky Atlantic (and for Sky as a whole) in that it gets around 1.5 million viewers. “This is a much better return on its investment than Mad Men’s 58,000, being nearly 300 times as many pairs of eyeballs,” he says.

“Yet in context, that number isn’t impressive. 1.5 million is under half the viewers garnered by the average episode of University Challenge. BBC Two’s repeats of Dad’s Army routinely get between 100,000 and 1 million more viewers than that,” he  .

He notes that ITV’s Jekyll and Hyde series was cancelled for averaging above Game of Thrones’ best ever individual UK rating. “The first episode of Jekyll and Hyde received 4.3 million viewers – no drama or comedy of Sky has ever achieved that,” he advises.

Game of Thrones’ audience, taking in file-sharing and people who buy DVDs/Blu-rays, may be significantly greater than that, but those people aren’t watching it on Sky Atlantic, they’re seeking it through alternative routes because it’s on Sky Atlantic,” he suggests.

According to Cooray Smith, content squirreled away on Sky does not reach substantial numbers, suggesting the broadcaster is “a sort of cargo cult version of television; it has critics, programming and advertising but no actual audience”.

In terms of Sky’s original productions, he notes that Penny Dreadful attracts around 350,000 viewers. “Then there’s Fortitude. The Times declared – and it is proudly displayed on the front of the Blu-ray and DVD of the series – that Fortitude, a passable co-production with an expensive cast, was ‘one of the most anticipated TV shows of the year’. If that was so, it wouldn’t have averaged around a million viewers an episode or about as many people as an average Channel 4 afternoon repeat of an ancient episode of The Simpsons gets,” he claims.

He suggests that BBC and ITV dramas such as New Tricks, Endeavour, Silent Witness or Luther can be relied upon to get five, six or eight times those viewers, and that Call the Midwife gets ten times that, and Sherlock 11 or 12.

He notes that with the possible exception of Sherlock, these series do not generate much media excitement or comment, despite serving a vastly larger audience than any series on Sky could dream of. “British newspaper coverage of television often feels like looking down the wrong end of a telescope. It’s the entertainment equivalent of the Westminster bubble,” he says.

“Bertolt Brecht, unlikely to have been a fan of BSkyB (sic), argued that art without an audience could still have intrinsic artistic value, but that an audience without a piece of art is people sitting in an empty room staring at nothing. It’s a strong argument,” contends Cooray Smith.

“That, though, just makes them not reaching a UK audience rather sad. You have to wonder if these US broadcasters and production houses are aware that they are essentially ‘delivering content’ to Brecht’s empty room and it would be the deepest of ironies to attempt to argue ‘art for art’s sake’ about the programming of as unapologetically commercial an organisation as BSkyB,” he contends.

“Television is a mass medium, and the word literally means ‘far seeing’. Television without an audience is television no one sees. Television without an audience isn’t really television at all,” he concludes.

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