Choppy waters for the Atlantic crossing

Sky Atlantic promised exciting programming and new Mad Men this summer. It has failed on both counts, says Gerard Gilbert
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The Independent Culture

If this doesn't work, nothing will," admitted Stuart Murphy, director of programmes for Sky Atlantic HD, at January's press launch for the new subscription channel that's been created to showcase the fruits of Sky's exclusive deal with HBO. But if what doesn't work?

Murphy was referring to Sky's attempt to lure what he has dubbed the "Freeview audience" to pay-TV – the generally more upmarket viewers who have so far resisted the siren call of live Premiership football and cinema-fresh movie releases, the bait that has lured over ten million subscribers to Sky. The chattering classes, if you like.

Sky themselves aren't commenting on numbers ahead of their quarterly results, but report an increase in existing customer satisfaction – as well as five million viewers tuning into Sky Atlantic in its opening week in February. Of my chattering friends and colleagues who already have Sky, many say they watch Sky Atlantic a lot – it's the thinking person's default channel when surfing for something to watch. After all, who wouldn't prefer reruns of The Sopranos or Curb Your Enthusiasm to reruns of The Mentalist or Lead Balloon? Or maybe that's just me.

But are classic reruns enough to lure those otherwise immune to Sky's charms? In the end it's the new shows that will have to do the persuading here, and I'm not sure that the first offerings on Sky Atlantic have lived up to what you might call "the golden age of HBO". Treme and Boardwalk Empire have been the big ones – and while I liked David Simon's Treme, with its fascinating and unexpectedly optimistic insight into post-Katrina New Orleans, as a time-poor professional TV reviewer, my feeling is that I can wait for the box set. And I was disappointed by Boardwalk Empire, which seems too formulaic beneath its Prohibition-era garb. The Sopranos really does seem like the last word on all this Mafia business.

It's been great to carry on with Entourage – although even that is a show in terminal decline – but I haven't been totally won over by the Entourage-like How to Make It in America, set in the New York garment industry, and feel distinctly lukewarm towards Bored to Death – Ted Danson or no Ted Danson.

Meanwhile, there's plenty of good US drama still knocking about on other channels, from Justified, Chuck and Sons of Anarchy on Channel 5's digital channels, to True Blood, Arrested Development and The Booth at the End on FX. And what has been interesting is how the advent of Sky Atlantic has forced other broadcasters to think outside the box.

BBC4, for example, has great success with its subtitled European drama imports. To be fair, they were screening the French detective series Spiral long before Sky Atlantic came along, but they must be especially pleased by the critical and audience success of its relatively cheap and unheralded Danish purchase, The Killing. This came from nowhere to beat the much-hyped Boardwalk Empire in their simultaneous Saturday prime-time slot by approximately 100,000 viewers, judged on the overnight viewing figures, although Murphy has said that he thinks that such viewing figures are misleading, preferring "consolidated" viewing figures that take into account people's non-live methods of watching.

In the meantime, Game of Thrones, a sexy and bloodthirsty epic fantasy with Sean Bean in the lead, has just started, while The Borgias – sexed-up history in The Tudors mould – is still to come. I quite like Game of Thrones, and I speak as one not even on polite nodding terms with the genre, but I guess the big test for many a recalcitrant Freeview viewer will come when the new series of Mad Men is finally aired – so Sky Atlantic must be doubly peeved at the protracted negotiations that mean series four will not transmit before 2012, instead of this August, as originally projected. Rarely has so much rested on the square shoulders of Don Draper and his fellow Madison Avenue admen.