Clouds in Murdoch's Sky: William Phillips argues that the promised satellite and cable television revolution has stalled

Not since the early Eighties have we been so deafened by prophetic techno-babble about media and communications. Coming out of the Conservatives' first slump, broadband and multichannel were the buzz words. Exiting the second Tory trough, it's the information superhighway. The promise is the same: films and football, armchair shopping, banking and betting, so much choice that we will spend more time planning what to watch than watching it.

British Telecom and cable television operators are locked in battle about which should have prior rights to dump these goodies in couch potatoes' laps. Above their battle soars the Astra satellite, already blanketing Britain with a score of channels. Half a dozen more will follow by Christmas.

It will cost billions, as revolutions are apt to do, and it is hard to find an existing newspaper owner or broadcaster who has not stuck at least half a finger in the pie. Perhaps this is why certain facts about what happened, or failed to happen, between past and present bursts of electronic euphoria have not received the attention they deserve. For instance:

In 1982 it was widely predicted that by now half the country's homes might receive some non-terrestrial television, by wire or dish. Today's actual figure is one in five.

Modern cable systems pass about 3 million out of 23 million households. Fewer than 700,000 have signed up: penetration has dropped slightly since early 1993. Cable TV's total reach, including old narrowband networks, is lower than in 1990.

In the first 28 weeks of 1994, compared with the same period a year ago, average viewing by non-

terrestrial subscribers has fallen by almost two hours a week, or 7 per cent (see table). This accelerates the fall of 1.2 per cent between 1992 and 1993, although nationally available satellite services increased from 10 to 16 between the first halves of 1993 and 1994.

The dominant satellite television operator, BSkyB, suffered a drop of 18 per cent in average viewing per customer between 1993 and 1994. Some of this can be blamed on the general rise in fees when BSkyB's Multi Channels package ( pounds 20 a month) was introduced. But its free services, Sky One and Sky News, have not been spared.

Viewing of Sky One, the general entertainment service, is down by a remarkable 29 per cent. It has become less popular in satellite and cable homes than Channel 4 or BBC 2, the epitomes of the arrogant cultural elitism once deplored by Rupert Murdoch. Sky News, which was being given the tabloid touch by the Sun's Kelvin MacKenzie - until his sudden resignation yesterday - is down from 1.5 to 1.2 per cent of viewing.

According to the market researcher GfK, hired by satellite's terrestrial rivals in the ITV Association, one in 10 customers of Multi Channels drop out each year. Some move house and do not bother to stick up a new dish; some cannot afford BSkyB any longer; some reconsider costs against benefits. The typical subscriber still passes more than two-thirds of viewing time with the four old networks.

Non-terrestrial television is the medium's most expansive innovation since the original black and white box, and the most intensively sold. Since 1989, Sky (later BSkyB) has held a near-monopoly of the most attractive novelties: recent films and live sports. It enjoyed free publicity worth tens of millions of pounds in newspapers belonging to Rupert Murdoch's News International group. Despite this, in its first five years, satellite has been the slowest-growing species in television's 50-year history.

Mr Murdoch's four-channel Sky Television gobbled up BSB, its only serious competitor, after six months' conflict. This appeared a famous victory for News International - the Luxemburg-based privateer had sunk a licensed UK warship. Arguably, though, the downmarket coloration the merged BSkyB acquired by abandoning all BSB's worthy public service gestures, such as arts programming and investment in feature films, has hampered progress.

The Sun-and-Sky image suited satellite television in the late Eighties when the future appeared to belong to Essex Man, Mrs E and the kids; but once they started to feel the pinch, the lack of programming targeted at childless and/or genteel viewers became a problem.

The upmarket folk avoiding satellite channels include advertising personnel, who see little reason to switch part of their budgets from mainstream television or the burgeoning national commercial radio sector. Mr Murdoch was originally so starry-eyed that he proposed making even the film channels free of charge, confident that advertising would pay for them. Experience has taught him to charge viewers as much as they can bear.

Consider two sums. The BBC colour licence means that typical BSkyB customers' consumption of BBC programmes costs them 6p an hour. Assume pounds 15 of the pounds 20 monthly Multi Channels bill is for BSkyB's three film channels. They watch around 80 films a year, costing 45p an hour - seven or eight times as much as the BBC. The fact that film channels stuffed with recent releases command only one-tenth of subscribers' viewing time should give pause to anyone who thinks piping Hollywood down wires guarantees a pot of gold.

Like most assumptions about the British home entertainment market, this one has been carried over wholesale from film-mad America. So has faith in sports, for which ever-spiralling sums are being bid by all broadcasters. However, sports ratings have been in general decline on terrestrial television for 15-20 years.

If rights to Test cricket, for which BSkyB is pitching today, eventually head heavenwards to Astra, it will be partly because the mass public is no longer as interested in sporting spectacles as in the industrial-era heyday of passive, regimented leisure.

We can see how the constant piling-on of more specialised, narrowcast options fails to stimulate usage. UK Living, aiming to be the housewives' daytime choice, currently reaches fewer than one in 20 housewives in cable and satellite homes on any given day. Country Music Television is on a 0.2 per cent share. Narrowcasting collides with the law of diminishing returns.

Not long ago publishers thought newspapers were an incurable addiction. Now they slash their cover prices and cut each others' throats. Mr Murdoch is said to have started the press's price war believing that only four dailies have the strength and diversity of appeal to flourish in the next century. And perhaps only four big, universally appealing television channels?

HOW SATELLITE/CABLE VIEWERS DIVIDE THEIR TIME

----------------------------------------------------------------- Percentage viewing shares ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1994* 1993* 1992* BBC1 24.2 24.4 25.1 BBC2 6.4 7.0 7.1 ITV 30.3 30.9 30.2 Ch 4 7.0 7.6 6.4 Total terrestrial 67.9 69.9 68.8 Sky One 5.6 7.4 7.5 Sky News 1.2 1.5 1.8 Sky Sports 3.7 3.3 3.4 Movie Channel 3.4 3.2 3.6 Sky Movies Plus 3.9 5.0 6.2 Sky Movies Gold 0.6 0.5 0.4 Total BSkyB 18.4 20.8 23.0 Other channels 12.8 9.3 8.2 Total non-terrestrial 32.1 30.1 31.2 Total weekly viewing** 25.47 27.38 27.73 ----------------------------------------------------------------- *Data for first 28 weeks each year ----------------------------------------------------------------- **per subscriber (hours) Source: BARB -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Baroness Lane-Fox warned that large companies such as have become so powerful that governments and regulators are left behind
techTech giants have left governments and regulators behind
News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
'Prison Architect' players decide the fate of inmates
tech
Life and Style
A picture taken on February 11, 2014 at people walking at sunrise on the Trocadero Esplanade, also known as the Parvis des droits de l'homme (Parvis of Human Rights), in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Recruitment Genius: Advertisement Sales Manager

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A publishing company based in F...

Guru Careers: Product Design Engineer / UX Designer

£20 - 35k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a tech savvy Product Design Engineer /...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor