Children's hour - all day, every day
It's young and brash, with a line-up of MTV-style video jocks - and it's a BBC station. Welcome to UK PLAY.
Monday 12 October 1998
It is, you may have guessed, no ordinary BBC station. And its head, Stuart Murphy, at a mere 26 years old, is the youngest-ever boss of a British TV channel. Last Saturday, he launched UK PLAY, a sort of rival to MTV, to fewer than a million cable subscribers. A joint venture between BBC UK TV and Flextech, America's biggest cable operator, it is aimed at 16-25-year-olds and will mix comedy and pop. Its secret weapon is the BBC brand name, and presenters who have made their name on BBCs 1 and 2. The likes of Harry Enfield, Jamie Theakston, Jayne Middlemiss, Paul Kaye (aka Dennis Pennis) and Chris Moyles like the idea so much that they appear not to mind making what normally would be seen as a retrograde step into cable and satellite.
According to record industry sources, MTV were so worried about the advent of this new, well funded station that they wanted to merge with it. A meeting was held in the spring between Michiel Bakker, MD of MTV and VH- 1, and two executives from UK PLAY. Bakker confirms he had such a meeting, but denies that it was about a merger.
"I can't comment on that. We have had a few conversations with people that operate in the multi-channel environment. If working together makes more sense than competing then we will talk to people," he says. UK PLAY are keeping equally tight-lipped, although it seems that privately they see even a request for a meeting as a sign of weakness.
What Bakker will confirm is his claim that music television is operating in a difficult commercial environment, and so the commercial cake to be sliced up is lean. MTV's parent company, Viacom, does not release figures, so this statement is difficult to check.
It is clear, however, that a fight to the death for the crown of British music television is about to begin between the venerable market leader MTV, and the whippersnappers at UK PLAY. MTV, launched in Britain in 1987, has already seen off one rival, The Power Station, run by British Satellite Broadcasting, which was swallowed up in the Sky takeover. MTV, and its sister station VH-1, have always dominated the British scene, though they have found that their European hegemony has been gradually eroded with the advent of home-grown stations, notably Viva in Germany, and partially in Britain by the video request channel The Box.
Stuart Murphy, officially the channel editor at UK PLAY, has all the front you would expect from an upstart rival. He is confident, suave, brash and amusing, and possessed of a razor-sharp mind that took him from working-class roots in Leeds to a degree in political geography from Cambridge. He's not just after MTV, but sees himself competing against the straightforward entertainment channels.
For any young man who sets his sights on working in television, this must be a dream job. The BBC and Flextech hand over pounds 1m or so (Murphy won't disclose the exact amount), and off you go to chat to some of your favourite people, engage in a talent search, and ask them all to join your gang.
One of UK PLAY's core ideas is to take established shows and extend their remit. So there is Top of the Pops Plus, to include behind-the-scenes interviews and backstage glimpses. And there is a live O Zone called The Phone Zone. The station has not submitted to the temptation of plundering the BBC archives, and boasts 90 per cent original programmes. How does the licence fee payer benefit from all this? Flextech puts in all the money, and deals with the marketing and advertising, while the BBC handles all production. All profits will be split. The BBC profits will go back into making programmes and, theoretically, subsidising the licence fee.
Money is important to Murphy. "I hate all this bollocks where people don't talk about making money, and make out it's a sin, when most people in any TV job are paid OK money compared to the national average, and most of them personally want to make a stack of cash. I am employed to make a lot of money for BBC Worldwide and Flextech.
"One thing I think the BBC have really learnt from Flextech is that, in order to succeed in cable and satellite markets, you need to be completely niche, and have a really clear channel proposition, and just pursue it full pelt. For UK PLAY to be a music and comedy channel, that's a clear proposition."
Unlike the revamped Radio 1, which tried to shuffle off into indie land, UK PLAY is not interested in being cutting-edge, a policy MTV still claims to pursue. The music will mostly be commercial pop. There will be times in the day where UK PLAY will have back-to-back videos in the MTV style - Murphy calls it a "default viewing option" and "non-engaging TV", but believes that his trump card is quality programming. Murphy's VJs will be people with "approachable glamour".
His litmus test, for the girls at least, is uncomplicated. "Put it this way, I don't want to shag somebody who looks amazing, but has nothing about them... What will get me is someone who may not look amazing, but may be really sexy, with a lot of spark and intelligence, who's feisty, has a bit of spunk about them - no! - a bit of spirit about them.
"There are two sorts of music TV you can get. You can either get music TV that is radio on TV, which MTV does well and is doing less and less well. It's videos in the background that you can hoover and wash up to, and you may as well not have pictures. It's cheap, churned-out TV. And the other type of music TV is music entertainment, where you can sit and follow a narrative in a half-hour show and, at the end of the half hour, have another engageable programme. We're doing the second thing."
Just about everywhere he can, Murphy takes swipes at MTV. His targets range from their presenters to the quality of MTV news coverage, which he thinks is pointless on such a channel. "We're going head to head against them with a BBC brand, with five presenters and not one, with four cameras and not one, and with decent archives and not just music videos, and decent new-made stuff. We've got two big comedy scriptwriters. So we're spending about four times as much on our shows as they are, when we're going head to head. I find it amazing. They're in 6.5 million homes, but 6.4 million of those choose not to watch it every day."
The figures are easy to twist in any direction. What advertisers are after is the "purity of the demographic", rather than a large audience, and it is this commercially rich young audience that MTV and UK PLAY will seek, though MTV's brief is a wider 16-34 age range.
MTV's response has been the launch on 2 October of M2, which they describe as a cutting-edge, free-form experimental station, and next July they will launch a further three stations in what will surely be a crowded market place.
Michiel Bakker counters: "We have been in this market for a long time. We are not in a position to compete with BBC standards of production. It will be a hard lesson for them to learn about the economies of niche programming."
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