An audience with the Sky queen

Elisabeth Murdoch, head of Sky Television, used to be elusive, but now she's got a digital TV package to sell. By Janine Gibson
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Since all anybody in the television industry ever asks of anybody that knows is, "So, what's Elisabeth Murdoch like?", it is with the greatest regret that I have to confess that Rupert's daughter, as it is laid down that she will forever be known, is really very nice.

Disarmingly, this vision of good fortune - the blonde, under 30, wealthy general manager of British Sky Broadcasting - is very much more an enthusiastic 29-year-old exec than, frankly, she has any right to be. To her enormous credit, there is no bank of protective, hovering PRs and she answers every question without demurring.

Part of the reason why curiosity has been so unbounded is that Murdoch has maintained a scrupulously low profile since arriving at Sky two years ago, fresh from turning round two Californian channels. She pulled out of a couple of events, prompting great speculation among the media set, not known for their discretion. What could be wrong with her? Can she not speak?

Fortunately, yes she can. She is as lucid and passionate about her cause of bringing pay television to the masses. Indeed she barely pauses between sentences. Perhaps she is making up for lost time.

As the self-confessed "female face of Sky", she is easily the company's biggest selling point when it comes to putting the complex case for digital satellite television to the media. And she is clearly bracing herself for an onslaught this summer - she will definitely, she says, be giving a lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival.

What's more - and we never believed we'd see the day - she's going to do women's consumer press. A Liz Murdoch makeover? Her face wrinkles in self-parody. If she's being disingenuous, she's very good at it.

Murdoch's mission is to convey the Sky brand to the British public as something they can have a relationship with. The clumsy moniker British Sky Broadcasting has been dumped from all but the most corporate of marketing. Instead, Sky Television wants to be our friend. She says "we aspire to be a consumer brand - like Nike or Virgin".

The first step towards that goal has been a year-long rethink of every element of Sky's channels. Murdoch is frank: "The present perception of Sky 1 is that it is a collection of American programming, of poor quality and little substance."

Launched on essentially two hit shows, The X-Files and The Simpsons, Sky 1 is now high-profile acquisitions heaven. Its "Must See TV", unashamedly stolen from the US network NBC, which not only devised the name, but also commissioned the shows, is nonetheless an impressive line-up. Friends and ER have done their pricey job.

The recent Sunday night official Sky 1 relaunch, featuring a double bill of new Simpsons episodes, the Friends-in-London wedding show and a special X Files, achieved the highest share of 16-to-34-year-olds in multi-channel homes. Although, with that line-up, if it hadn't, you'd be seriously worried.

As Murdoch is well aware, a couple of schedule anchors do not a channel make. "The trick is to develop a relationship with your audience which is going to weather the ups and downs. What's going to happen when - God forbid it ever does - The Simpsons goes away? You need to have a bond in place, and you are constantly trying to come up with not only the next anchors in your schedule but a context in which you put those shows."

With original British programming, she is beginning to break new brands of her own. Hot Summer Down Under, Ibiza Uncovered and Hollywood Sex have stolen the steamier ground in the current vogue for popular factual shows.

Murdoch and her number two James Baker have creamed off innovative programmes by pursuing independent production companies, though they have abandoned their earlier plan of buying into one, deeming it uneconomic and probably ineffective.

"What you're going to see is that we're targeting that high-profile, marketable - I call it genre-busting - programming which doesn't necessarily need to be risque to be attention-grabbing. Those programmes are going to be at the very heart of our schedule. And it's working".

She's doubled the original programming spend on Sky 1 this year. "It's always been a desire and a dream, but it's only now that we are able to reinvest in making our own product."

She's learned some lessons and will now concentrate on longer runs of fewer shows. Next year we'll see a new daytime original strand, a late night stripped show and "big anchor shows in primetime". She smiles. "We're starting to pick our battles".

The timing, clearly, is crucial. Sky switches on its digital satellite signal later this month. With a technology that allows a seemingly unbounded number of channels, Sky cannot afford to let its own disappear in the crowd.

Each of the existing movie channels will be multiplied on digital, each with its own distinct identity, designed to reinforce the Sky brand with quality. Murdoch's latest acquisition, the maestro of film Barry Norman, is crucial to her plans. The idea is to imbue the movie channels with the kind of enthusiasm for their subject that, of the Sky channels so far, only Sky Sports has achieved.

Murdoch is clearly proud of Sky Sports which, even among begrudging UK terrestrial broadcasters, is generally acknowledged as having changed the face of sports coverage for the better. "We do ask our customers to pay. We have to give them value - if they don't like us, they can stop paying. It keeps you very honest.

"What's interesting is that the BBC has that relationship. They're very conscious of it. They are a pay service and they know it, and if you look at the corporate ethos there, it's for setting the highest standards at all times."

She adds that she feels Sky has more in common with the BBC than any other broadcaster in this country. It's a mark of her pride in her company (and it is her company - the Murdoch offspring own the family shares) that she sees no false claims in the comparison.

"They were the first to join our [digital] platform because they understand it's about giving value back to the customers and being platform neutral."

All her new digital channels - including the massive 48 channels of pay-per-view movies with start times every 15 minutes, which is as near as possible to "on demand" - will be on stream by mid-September, she says. They have to be.

Digital equipment will be in the High Street by late summer; the big marketing push for Sky is September. But Murdoch knows that she isn't going to sell it, at a reported pounds 200 a throw, on the strength of the technology. "Absolutely, it's a programming message."

Amidst all the talk of the digital future, it seems appropriate to ask about her future, and touch on the much-debated issue of succession within the family empire. "The children" agreed two years ago, according to Murdoch Snr, that eldest son Lachlan is the heir apparant. What will Ms Murdoch do? She looks quizzical. "The interview is changing..." She lights another cigarette.

"I've got a lot to do here. I don't plan on going anywhere for a great number of years. I'm very settled. It's actually nice; it's the first place that I've been in since leaving university where I'm not thinking `I'll just be here for two years, get the experience under my belt and move on'."

Do you want to rule the world? "No! Who wants to rule the world? I think everybody, if they're ambitious, wants to be influential in the world but..."

She seems embarassed and is getting quieter and quieter. "No, I'm quite modest [laughing]. This is off track..."

OK, what do you want for Sky? She relaxes immediately.

"I want 100 per cent of the country to be multi-channel television, which it will have to be if we're going to switch off the analogue signal. Obviously digital terrestrial's going to be a reality, digital cable's going to be a reality, but we want to see Sky in at least 50 per cent of multi-channel homes, which with 100 per cent penetration will be 50 per cent of Britain. That's certainly the minimum."

As for BDB's rival digital terrestrial package, she points out that it will only be the same number of channels as the current Sky analogue package. "Their proposition is not really about digital. If you decide to be a multi-channel home and you have an option of, for the same amount of money, a true digital home, a Sky digital home, versus BDB then you think, well, why would I do that? It's a no-brainer."

Confidence at Sky is certainly high. "It's great that it's 10 years to the day of Sky launching analogue satellite. The next decade is really the Sky decade I think." It's hard to argue with a Murdoch.