Independent Decade : The magic of television - and Mr Murdoch

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Ten years ago, when The Independent helped to break the mould of national newspaper publishing in the UK, the most influential man in the British media was Rupert Murdoch.

Today, whether in newspapers or in the fast-growing television market, he remains, by far, the most powerful media baron of all.

The decade has been a testimony to the power of the media, and the power that accrues to those who control it. Whether by breaking the unions through the controversial move to Wapping - a watershed that helped make The Independent possible - or by launching an aggressive price war in 1994, sapping the strength of every newspaper title in an attempt to see off the competition, Mr Murdoch has set the agenda.

More recently, it has been the television industry that has seen the fastest changes, and again Mr Murdoch is at centre stage. The Broadcasting Act of 1990 was the ultimate Thatcherite policy: long-lived franchises, not least the world-famous Thames Television, found they could not hold on to their franchises in the auction system that awarded them to the highest bidder.

Thames fell to Michael Green's Carlton Communications, while Lord Hollick's media empire ended up with two southern licences, Anglia and Meridian.

The Act also spurred the growth of commercial radio, one of the British media's success stories ever since it was released from its "pirate" status by the Conservatives two decades ago.

In the past 10 years, commercial local radio has blossomed into the fastest growing advertising medium of all. Just under 200 radio stations vie for listeners. But as the industry had made its great leap forward, there has emerged a fresh challenge - the growth of the integrated commercial radio chains.

Just how local can stations be if they are owned by one of the big regional groupings - GWR or Emap, for example - which increasingly insist that local affiliates accept centrally produced programming?

In commercial radio as in so many other sectors, the proliferation of services has been followed by concentration with the big players snapping up the small. There has been similar pressure towards amalgamation in the the BBC's local and regional services.

The driving force of innovation in broadcasting in the past decade however has been satellite television, about which at the start industry grandees had been complacent and dismissive.

When Mr Murdoch launched Sky Television in 1989, he had only one channel, and spent freely to combat the competitive threat from British Satellite Broadcasting, the blue-blooded, "serious" company with backers that included Pearson.

The two competing systems launched a debilitating war, and both began to lose serious money. Baroness Thatcher allowed them to merge, waiving all licence considerations and handing Mr Murdoch the satellite monopoly.

And still the traditional broadcasters ignored him. Multi-channel television would never take off in the UK, they said. Viewers were too used to high-quality programmes for mass audiences.

Who would pay Mr Murdoch a subscription fee to watch niche channels and second-rate imports?

Mr Murdoch had an answer, of course, in the form of the big Hollywood movies and the best that football (and other sports) had to offer.

As it happens, millions did want to watch his service - 3.8 million via satellite today, with 1.4 million more on cable. BSkyB now makes pounds 9 a second in profits and has already become the country's 16th largest company.

One in four UK households receives more channels than the four offered by terrestrial broadcast television and the proportion is set to grow to half by the turn of the century, driven by the slow but relentless growth of cable.

Mr Murdoch made the biggest multi-channel bet, and called the odds impeccably. As a result, it is he who earned the lion's share of the pounds 1bn we spent on cable and satellite television in the last year alone.

In newspapers, his grip is no less fierce. Newspapers may be a gently declining industry, slowly but inexorably losing readers. Yet readers have not lost the newspaper habit, and with the exception of Today and a few ill-starred new launches, there have been no casualties since The Independent was launched so successfully 10 years ago.

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