Media: Liz and Mark's satellite love-in

Sky Wars kick off this week with the launch of Rupert Murdoch's digital television service - but the competition will be tough, so Sky's bosses are welcoming all the digital media friends they can get, and one of them, at least, is a rather surprising choice
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The Independent Culture
Mark Booth and Elisabeth Murdoch are on a mission to change the television habits of Britain. The task would be daunting enough for anyone, but these two are American - and if they are to succeed they not only need to understand British culture very quickly; they also need to change it.

Booth is the boss of BSkyB and Murdoch, daughter of Rupert, runs its Sky Networks division. Together they are in the business of persuading us that the age of television as a force of national cohesion is over: that we no longer wish to sit down all together on a Monday night to watch EastEnders, and that, instead, we are ready to embrace a world of hundreds of channels. In fact, they want Britain to overtake America as the world's most sophisticated provider of digital television - and "the project" starts this Thursday, with the launch of Sky Digital.

But they have a problem with the Sky brand. A decade ago, the company brought multi-channel television to Britain by selling ugly great satellite dishes door-to-door on housing estates, and delivering television that was cheap and largely poor quality. The consequence has been a strong class division over satellite, with the middle classes still sniffy about dishes. So far, fewer than a third of British homes have gone multi-channel.

Booth and Murdoch are acutely aware that Sky's appeal needs to move out of the council estates, and into the leafy suburbs. The company needs to shed its image as a service for football fanatics, and become attractive to everyone.

It makes sense, then, that both Sky executives have recently taken to praising the BBC, perhaps hoping that some of its blue-chip brand image will rub off - that Sky will gain credibility by association.

Rupert Murdoch's Sun may lambast the Beeb, and call for an end to the licence fee. But Sky television, in which he also has a controlling interest, has lately become the Corporation's best friend.

"The BBC's endorsement of digital says to Middle England that this is good," says Booth. "And the BBC is better today than it has ever been. Its sports, comedies and documentaries are better than ever."

Anyone who buys Sky Digital on 1 October will immediately recognise the status of the BBC on the system. BBC1 and BBC2 are the first two channels on the Electronic Programme Guide, which provides the gateway to the 75 television channels, 48 pay-per-view channels, and 44 audio channels which are up and running already.

Murdoch looks perplexed at the suggestion that Sky might be trying to hijack some of the BBC's brand image for itself. You imagine that she's dying to say "as if", and would do so if the interview were being conducted in California rather than at Sky's HQ in a grim industrial park somewhere off the M4.

"We're very impressed with their vision," she says. "It is very genuine."

But her pride at having lured Barry Norman, the veteran film critic, away from the BBC, is evident. She has put his programme in a prime-time slot on Sky1, and he's already securing as many viewers as he was in his late-night programme at the Beeb - around 300,000. The message can be read in one of two ways - either that BBC presenters can help push Sky's image upmarket, or that the BBC is still so far ahead of Sky in quality terms that its late-night cast-offs are Sky's stars.

A second difficulty for the Sky digital team is the widespread hostility to Rupert Murdoch, which was so prominent during the takeover bid for Manchester United. Would it be better for Sky's brand image if Elisabeth were not so prominently associated with the company? Was her photoshoot for Tatler a bid to establish herself as a different sort of Murdoch?

She retreats into the sofa, plainly bored of this sort of question. "I'm my own sort of Murdoch," she says quietly.

But the name alone is enough. It has already fuelled a suggestion that there is something a little sinister about digital television. Once your TV goes interactive, it will record your viewing habits. Rupert Murdoch, the propaganda goes, will be watching you.

Both Booth and Murdoch are quick to dismiss the notion. "We can't get the ratings system to work, let alone spy," says Liz. "The computer chip really destroyed the idea that you can control information," says Mark. "It's the inverse of reality," adds Liz.

The immediate reality, anyhow, is not about spying; it's about money. Many hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent by Sky on the infrastructure for digital, and on subsidising set-top boxes and cheap subscription deals.

A few weeks ago, facing City analysts, Booth said he didn't mind spending a ton of cash, because it would deliver a ton of subscribers, and the share price tumbled. He says he has no regrets about the statement, and maintains that the City was simply slow to understand the Sky strategy, and that the sums mean that, all the time the subsidised deals bring in new customers, Sky benefits.

But the incident was indicative of the aggression behind Sky's bid to get to first place in the digital war. The company needs to win as many customers as possible, as quickly as it can, before its rivals, ONdigital and the cable companies, come into the market.

This week, Sky will exploit the fact that it is launching its brand of digital first, with a pounds 60m advertising campaign on television, radio, and posters. Until 15 October, this will aim to get people used to the concept of digital television; then, says Booth, the "features and benefits" offensive will start - detailing the channels and programmes on offer, and the cheapness of the subscription deals.

Last month, the aggressive marketing looked as if it might turn nasty, as ONdigital's boss, Stephen Grabiner, accused Booth of saying Sky could finish off ONdigital at birth. A few weeks later, after further animosity, Peter Rogers, the head of the Independent Television Commission, asked the digital bosses to calm down.

Booth now seems to have softened his line. It's "absurd" to think that Sky can kill off ONdigital, he says. And he talks only of the relative attractions the two services are offering - being sure to point out that OnDigital's 30 channels are a mere subset of Sky's 200.

But, back to the question of culture. Will the British want digital at all, or will they resist the pressure of a multi-billion-pound industry to make them change their viewing habits? Booth reaches for two television zappers. One is the old-style all-black analogue zapper, the other the big new Sky digital contraption, with colour-coded buttons and multiple options. Don't you think, he says, that people will want this? That they'll want to show it off to their neighbours?

This is the American attitude coming out. In fact, the elusive middle classes, whom Sky is desperate to attract to their channels, are not prone to boasting about the size of their gadgetry. It's far more likely that they'll sign up to the digital age quietly, and keep the zapper tucked away in a drawer.

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