Greg Dyke on Broadcasting

BSkyB's monopoly takes the risk out of the drama business
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The Independent Online

We now know that Dawn Airey, the managing director of Sky Networks, is a great fan of Home Box Office (HBO) - the US cable channel responsible for such outstanding dramas as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Sex and the City and Band of Brothers. We know this because she told us so in her recent, inspiring Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture, which was broadcast on BBC television. But in her lecture, Airey ducked the real question: why hasn't anything remotely similar to HBO emerged from pay television in Britain?

We now know that Dawn Airey, the managing director of Sky Networks, is a great fan of Home Box Office (HBO) - the US cable channel responsible for such outstanding dramas as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Sex and the City and Band of Brothers. We know this because she told us so in her recent, inspiring Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture, which was broadcast on BBC television. But in her lecture, Airey ducked the real question: why hasn't anything remotely similar to HBO emerged from pay television in Britain?

Airey did claim that such programmes were only possible because of the advent of multi-channel subscription television which is, she says, "liberating the creative genius of the programme maker". Well, it certainly has in the US, where, during the past decade or so, HBO has transformed itself from a channel playing movies and big boxing matches into the cable channel smart people have to have - and pay for - because of the quality of its drama production. But that still doesn't answer the question, why hasn't it happened here?

While BSkyB programming has been enormously successful and innovative in the fields of news and sport - it has rewritten the rules on covering football to brilliant effect - you would be hard pushed to say that that is the result of "creative genius". And Sky has had little or no impact in the fields of British-made drama, entertainment and comedy programming, and has spent very little money trying to do so, despite having billions pouring into its coffers each year.

Airey says HBO has been successful because it has been able to take creative risks because "it is free from the pressure to appease advertisers and politicians that so characterises so much of our mainstream television". But then look at the creative risks taken regularly by the BBC and Channel 4, and compare them to the programming risks taken by Sky, and you really are comparing elephants and mice.

Of course, Sky is not a risk-free company. It has taken massive commercial risks and should be applauded for doing so. But taking the decision to spend billions on football or movies is not a creative risk in the same way as commissioning a number of very expensive drama series.

So, is this likely to change? Airey told us that when subscription television - and I assume she means Sky channels - reaches 70 to 80 per cent of homes in Britain, a figure I doubt it will ever reach, she hoped that Sky programming might become "similarly creatively ambitious". But why would this happen? If it happened, why wouldn't Sky just pocket the additional subscription income and boost its profits?

I suspect the truth behind the success of HBO is that some very smart executives decided they needed to differentiate themselves from Showtime, the other US cable channel whose programming was based on movies and boxing, so they decided to create a "must have" quality channel, and did it brilliantly. They took the risk of commissioning expensive and distinctive television drama on the basis that people would pay for HBO not necessarily because they watched all the drama - although they do watch a lot - but because its reputation became so high people felt better if they subscribed. As a result, HBO became massively profitable and expanded its investment in quality drama.

So, why hasn't Sky felt it necessary to do the same thing? The answer - it didn't need to. It has created its own monopoly, there is no Showtime to compete with and buying Premiership football carries less risk.

I always find it faintly amusing when Sky people start talking, as Airey did, about the benefits of competition "democratising the viewer". BSkyB has as great a monopoly in pay programming as ITV used to have in advertiser funded television, and the BBC has with the licence fee. To pretend there is a wonderful new, open market in subscription television is ridiculous.

BBC thought-police? I don't think so

In the days when I was director general at the BBC, I appeared before parliamentary committees on umpteen occasions and hated it every time. In fact, on one occasion I was threatened with being hung, drawn and quartered for refusing to appear before the House of Commons Transport Committee to discuss the relationship between the portrayal of speed on television and road accidents. I refused on the grounds that I knew absolutely nothing about it.

Last week, I was called to give evidence to the House of Lords Committee looking at the future of the BBC and the Government's Green Paper on the next BBC Charter. Sitting alongside me was Gavyn Davies, my former chairman who resigned the day before I left the BBC.

How much we both enjoyed it. To be able to go and say what you wanted to without hours of rehearsal beforehand with the BBC's thought-police was truly liberating. In the old days, I would never have been allowed to imply that Alastair Campbell was a fruitcake who had been given too much power, and that the Prime Minister had deliberately tried to stop the BBC reporting fully and fairly the opposition to the war in Iraq. Last week, as a free man, I was able to do just that.

Not that the BBC thought-police didn't try. A week earlier, I got a friendly e-mail from BBC corporate affairs suggesting that maybe they could "help" me prepare for my appearance. I replied that I might just say a few things they wouldn't want me to, so it was better they kept out of it.

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