Analysis: March of the old men marks Sky's new dawn

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The Independent Culture
FROM ONE angle the defection last week of Jimmy Hill from the BBC to Sky's Sports News channel looks a little like the creation of a television retirement home in the sky.

Hill, the veteran sports pundit and broadcaster, has joined forces with that other television institution, Barry Norman, who moved from the BBC to Sky in June.

The fact that both men are in the autumn of their careers - Hill is 70 and Norman 64 - looks to some as though they have decided to make some serious money before they think about retiring permanently to the celebrity golf circuit.

Others are inclined to view these two defections as the beginning of a much-heralded move of terrestrial institutions to Sky. The argument goes that, just as sport has moved largely to pay television, so eventually the top-rating shows and stars from terrestrial channels will follow the money.

Indeed, it is an old saw of media reporting that every year, when Granada's contract to supply Coronation Street to ITV comes up for renewal, a story appears in the press claiming that the soap is about to move to Sky.

Elisabeth Murdoch, Sky's general manager, has declared her intention to turn Sky 1 into a general entertainment channel to compete with ITV and Channel 5.

In order to do this Murdoch will need her own home-made programmes, because UK audiences are heroically resistant to imported programmes, and because we have a smaller proportion of foreign programmes in peak time than any other equivalent market.

If Ms Murdoch is hunting for home-grown talent, the obvious place to look is terrestrial television. This has prompted fears of spiralling talent inflation, just like the sports rights inflation that was created when Sky got out its sports chequebook.

However, it should be argued that the two swallows, Hill and Norman, do not a Sky summer make.

The satellite broadcaster's profits are down this year because of its funding of new digital channels and its subsidy for set-top decoders. Sky, frankly, does not have the cash to go on a spending spree for something of such unquantifiable value as talent.

And even without its digital commitments, once Sky's spending on sports rights - and that's mainly Premier League football - is taken out of its programme budget, its star-buying powers are dwarfed by BBC1 and ITV.

Instead Sky's programming has followed the pattern of Fox, its sister network in America. Fox has succeeded by buying American football rights and then innovating in the other parts of its schedules. Sitcoms such as The Simpsons and Married with Children upset American moralists when the station first aired, because of their irreverent take on family life. However, what was offensive to some was funny to a highly valuable younger television audience.

In its home-grown programming Sky insists that it is interested in creating new genres rather than in stealing them. With programmes such as Ibiza Uncovered it is fair to say that Sky has been innovative, even if the programmes are of dubious worth.

And in the case of both Hill and Norman there are very specific reasons why the satellite broadcaster has been able to lure them on board. Norman is the bigger purchase, reportedly costing the channel pounds 300,000 a year, because it is intended that he should give a face to Sky's plethora of film offerings on its new digital platforms.

Hill looks like a more opportunistic buy, but he fits the same strategy of getting established faces to help brand-new services.

Hill was available for the simple reason that everything he did for the BBC had been bought up by Sky or ITV: "This was not a decision of mine," he said last week. "The BBC doesn't have any of the programmes I've done for them in the past because the BBC has lost all the contracts for the FA Cup and so on.

"They will miss me around World Cup time, but, apart from that, it won't make much difference to them, me going."

Hill will also be part of Sky's digital services, and undoubtedly there will be further smash-and-grab raids on terrestrial institutions as the broadcaster seeks to fill its hundreds of channels. However, wholesale lifting is not in Sky's plans.