Media: Switched on - but Sky has its limits

Ten years after its launch, Britain's first 24-hour news service has won credibility but hardly any viewers. By Sarah Nathan
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The Independent Culture
Sky News, the station that was supposed to break the mould of British broadcast news, is ten years old next week. It may be looking staid and old-fashioned, but it now has a solid reputation for dealing with breaking news fast and well.

After a flurry of building and recruitment, as Rupert Murdoch rushed to beat BSB to the "on" button, the station was launched just six months after it was commissioned.

It was never the channel that was going to make Mr Murdoch millions - but then that was not its purpose. It was there to protect the Murdoch empire from charges of trivialising communications, of being only out for profit, of giving nothing back. One early employee described it as a "heatshield" to deflect criticism from News International's multi-faceted operation.

To some extent it has remained that to this day. It was a help, of course, that the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was such a committed supporter. Early on, she decided to give Sky News, which had virtually no viewers, her first big political interview of the year rather than giving it to ITN or the BBC as usual. Indeed after only about a year of transmission, she was reported by Mr Murdoch as describing Sky as "the only unbiased news in the UK."

It was this basic function as a political and PR operation which has kept Sky News going: other Murdoch outlets which cost this much for such a small audience or readership have not had an easy time. Sky News cost around pounds 15 million to set up and had an initial annual budget of about pounds 30 million, but it has never crashed downmarket or introduced gimmicks such as the News Bunny to attract viewers.

Indeed the only begetter of the News Bunny, Kelvin Mackenzie, lasted only a short time at Sky, and was thought to have left because of his determination to pursue the "weather in Norwegian/topless darts" route to an audience - something which would defeat the whole purpose for which Sky News was established in the first place. After some memorable clashes, including one about the outspoken Tory MP, Alan Clark's multiple mistresses, Kelvin went off to do it his way.

Rupert Murdoch promoted Sky News as a mould breaker. Just months after its launch he addressed the broadcasting tribe at its annual gathering in Edinburgh and held up Sky News as a model for all news broadcasting. It defended us from bias, he said, because one journalist's opinions would get lost in the acres of coverage. He said channels such as his Sky News were less susceptible to government pressure because they were not dependent on the licence fee and that Sky was more likely to do investigative journalism because it did not need to worry about its state-sponsored privileges. This, when seen in the context of his relationship with Mrs. Thatcher or indeed with current Labour politicians, has a certain irony. Whatever the merits of Sky News today, and there are many, no-one would describe it as a flagship for investigative journalism.

The station now has an aura of undoubted competence in a rather conservative style. The format is a close relation to American network news, with graphic boxes, a bluish set and endless straps across the bottom of the screen. It may be old-fashioned: the chaps are mostly mature suits, the women serious and not too threatening and there's almost always one of each. There's little graphic gimmickry and no sensation of presenters dominated by a video wall, the new craze on terrestrial television news. But this simplicity liberates the channel to do what it does best: dealing with breaking news fast when it happens.

The Gulf War made rolling news seem like a good idea, and CNN made its reputaion, but Sky's particular strength has always been in domestic, human interest stories. It cleared the schedules to bring us Louise Woodwards's trial in all its detail - incidentally forcing the terrestrial channels to rethink how much of the trial they would transmit. Its coverage of the Omagh bombing was fast and well-judged. Most recently, the discovery of the two Hastings schoolgirls last Friday was an interesting example of its coverage and one where it is illuminating to compare Sky News and its younger rival: the BBC's News 24.

On Friday, Sky News came over as the establishment. It may have looked staid and secure, but it was fast-moving and enterprising in getting the rejoicing parents on-air before anyone else. In a sort of weird role-reversal, the BBC looked the brash, immature newcomer. Its presenters are young and jacket-less.

They sit in a bright playground of a set and you can see the fear in their eyes. Maybe it's the lasting terror of the new technologies used on News 24, but the presenters seem distracted. On Friday one appeared to lack the confidence to listen to what the correspondent was telling him. News 24 may have broadcast the news of a possible breakthrough first, but the presenter never noticed and didn't follow it up. Sky was initially slower - stuck in a business programme - but when they picked up the story they really ran with it, using their correspondent to the full, with background packages and rather repetitive library footage.

The BBC trumpets the advantage of having 200 specialist correspondents and thousands of journalists to gather the news, but at Sky at least they can focus on getting the story for one customer. The BBC's Stephen Cape was barely through his live two-way on News 24 before he was on BBC1's One Clock News. No wonder the poor man looked harassed. I only hope he didn't have to do BBC World, The World at One and Radio Five Live as well.

But, however professional the Sky News broadcasts are, its audience remains pitifully small. It reaches just over one million people a week on cable and, even in homes with cable, only has a less than one percent share of viewing time. The station's publicity claims it's seen by seven million people a month in Britain and makes much of its global reach. The first BARB data for News 24 shows it, rather surprisingly, getting similar figures on cable - more encouraging for the BBC with what is still a fledgling service, but not testifying to a huge unassuaged appetite for rolling television news. For those working on Sky News, it's just as well the influence and the budget is out of proportion to the number of viewers.

Presenters such as Bob Friend and Adam Boulton pull in newsworthy interviewees and their programmes are watched in the offices of papers and broadcasters, politicians and lobbyists all over the country. Rather like Channel 5 News, Sky may be content to have influence disproportionate to its viewers.

As long as Rupert Murdoch and his successors are content to take the budgetary rough with the political smooth, there's no reason why the station shouldn't continue for another ten years and more.

Sarah Nathan is the former editor of Channel 4 News