Sky: Quality drama - at a price

Sky's latest channel promises to be a one-stop shop for fans of the best American series – but many viewers will miss out, says Gerard Gilbert

It's the last piece of the jigsaw," says Stuart Murphy, director of programmes for Sky Atlantic HD, the new channel that's been created to showcase the fruits of Sky's exclusive deal with HBO in America. The deal also includes the entire HBO back catalogue, including The Sopranos, Sex and the City and The Wire, as well as all their new shows, like Wire creator David Simon's post-Hurricane Katrina drama, Treme, and Martin Scorsese's first foray into cable TV drama, Boardwalk Empire, as well as new series of Weeds, Entourage and In Treatment. Sky Atlantic has also poached Mad Men from the BBC, and signed a side-deal with CBS for the new hit cop show Blue Bloods and the latest historical bonk-buster, The Borgias. The channel opens its doors to satellite subscribers on 1 February, meaning that viewers who don't subscribe to Sky will miss out.

First of all, what a good choice of name. The Atlantic is neither British nor American, a neutral space where British sensibilities can meet the current flowering of American TV drama. It's hard to imagine an alternative. Sky USA sounds too much like a failed budget airline, or something with Jonathan King attached. Sky Box-Set? Too much like Sky Box Office, even if it does neatly identify the target audience for Sky Atlantic. What you might call Box-Set Person. Yes, you know who you are.

Box-Set Person never worries about missing an episode of Mad Men, Lost or The Wire – she has it sitting there in her bookcase. She may go a month without watching a single minute of The Sopranos, a series she has come to rather late, but then gorge on five episodes in one sitting. Last Christmas found her buried in seasons one to three of Mad Men, that Booker-shortlisted novel she had been meaning to read all year still untouched at her bedside.

Stuart Murphy prefers to call his target subscribers "Freeview audiences", the older, more upmarket viewers who have so far resisted the siren call of live Premiership football and hot-from-the-cinema movie releases, the bait that has lured ten million subscribers to Sky. Without spending an extra bean, Freeview Person has hitherto been able to catch Mad Men on BBC4, Sex and the City on E4, Curb Your Enthusiasm on More 4, True Blood on Channel 4, Flight of the Conchords on BBC2 and Entourage on ITV2. And a whole lot more besides. Scheduling could be sporadic (Breaking Bad, for example, has at times required bloodhound-like tenacity to track down from season to season), but the Golden Age of American TV Drama was mostly all for free.

No longer. Box-Set Man or Freeview Woman (either way, they are the same demographic, with the same haphazard method of consuming their favourite shows) are now faced with a stark choice: either pay up or put up – subscribe to Sky, or wait a while for the box-sets to turn up on Amazon.

"Mad Men could be the tipping point," says a friend of mine – Box-Set Man incarnate. "My wife hates Sky for buying Mad Men." Mr and Mrs Box-Set have so far gone to extreme lengths to avoid renting a satellite dish. For example, when their kids' favourite American show, Chuck, moved from Freeview to Living, they started downloading it from iTunes. And, despite sensing the inevitable, they have their caveats – especially about adverts on the advertising saga Mad Men. "As ironic as it is," says Mr B-S, "Adverts would spoil Mad Men."

He also worries about what is going to happen to those water-cooler moments in the office, when colleagues gather round to discuss last night's Mad Men or Lost episode. "I used to love the mass cultural experience of the early series of Lost on Channel 4," he says. "There weren't many water-cooler moments after it moved to Sky."

So, apart from the new series of Mad Men, which begins in August (within days of the US premiere), with what are Sky Atlantic tempting us? It's hard to know where to begin – although not that hard, with Martin Scorsese making his television debut directing the pilot episode (the most expensive pilot in TV history) of Boardwalk Empire, a lavish and beautifully realised new costume drama set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City. Scorsese was also a very hands-on executive producer, having weekly meetings with creator and main writer, Terence Winter of The Sopranos.

Boardwalk Empire also provides welcome TV exposure for one of independent cinema's most cherished actors, Steve Buscemi, who shows real leading-man brio as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, the corrupt treasurer of Atlantic County and its most powerful political figure – the Tony Soprano of the piece.

David Simon's long-awaited new saga, set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Treme, will also debut in February. Every bit as dense as The Wire, it may lack the cops-and-dealers narrative drive of its predecessor's early season, but there's a storming soundtrack and a sense of place you can almost smell. Substitute New Orleans for Baltimore and you have the idea.

Also among the first month's highlights are the new series of Entourage, as well as a new comedy drama from the same writers and producers which has been dubbed an "East Coast Entourage": How to Make It in America. This stars Bryan Greenberg from One Tree Hill and ER's Victor Rasuk as struggling friends who decide to use their street savvy to make it in New York's cut-throat fashion scene. US critics have been lukewarm, but I liked it.

There's also the new series of Weeds, with Mary-Louise Parker as the pot-dealing soccer mom, and the UK premiere of Al Pacino's Emmy-winning performance as euthanasia activist Jack Kevorkian in the HBO feature film You Don't Know Jack, as well as (in a strand called HBO Originals) complete reruns of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

And this transatlantic relationship isn't all one-sided, including as it does a sprinkling of home-grown drama, starting with Hit and Miss by Shameless creator Paul Abbott – a six-part tale about a pre-op transsexual contract killer. What's not to like, especially as Sky Atlantic provides a one-stop home for the best American drama, safe from the vagaries of schedulers (the BBC have been particularly guilty of this over the years) who think that 11.20pm on a school night is a good time to screen great drama.

It should be stressed, however, that HBO is not the only US network making good TV – indeed, some people reckon its glory days are behind it, as other cable stations like Showtime and the Fox subsidiary FX come to the fore. "HBO definitely has more competition than ever before," says Laura Fries of Variety. "Other channels are creating their own original shows and giving the big pay channels and networks a run for their money. These smaller networks have more room to experiment, so they have the freedom to fail that the others don't."

And there is still a lot of good US fare out there for free, shows like Justified, Californication, Dexter and Desperate Housewives. But there's no denying that Sky Atlantic is a clever move – an audacious land grab – by a broadcaster traditionally shunned in wealthier homes. And those are where the chattering classes reside. Stuart Murphy is well aware that shows like Mad Men punch way above their weight when it comes to critical kudos, and that while the numbers watching the show might be relatively tiny, the column inches generated are many. "If this doesn't work," he admits, "nothing will."

High drama: five must-see Sky Atlantic shows


"Won't bow; don't know how" is the slogan of David 'The Wire' Simon's saga of post-Katrina New Orleans, a portrait of a unique city rebuilding itself. Dense and optimistic, 'Treme' features a rich cultural stew of musicians, DJs, chefs and civil-rights campaigners – and a banging soundtrack.

When? February

Boardwalk Empire

Another time, another place – Atlantic City in 1920s Prohibition America, and a $10m pilot episode (the most expensive ever) directed by Martin Scorsese. Created by 'Sopranos' writer Terence Winter, this is a rather more glamorous New Jersey than that inhabited by Tony and his mob.

When? February

Game of Thrones

"'The Sopranos' in Middle Earth" is the jokey tagline that its writers have attached to this dark new drama, faithfully based on George R R Martin's epic fantasy novels; imagine 'Lord of the Rings' with 'Deadwood' levels of sex and violence. A largely British cast is led by Sean Bean.

When? April

Mildred Pierce

Kate Winslet takes the title role, and Evan Rachel Wood plays her daughter, in a drama series based on the James M Cain novel about a Depression-era single mother who opens a restaurant, originally filmed with Joan Crawford in 1945. Todd Haynes directs and Guy Pierce co-stars.

When? June


Dustin Hoffman makes his TV debut, and Nick Nolte co-stars, in a horse-racing drama directed by Michael Mann and written by David Milch ('NYPD Blue'; 'Deadwood'). Hoffman plays a gambling grifter newly released from prison.

When? September

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness