It's Rupert the Buffy stealer

The new Sky chief, James Murdoch, has a problem: his father is about to launch a channel that could steal thousands of viewers from him. Ed Waller explains
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The Independent Online

He has handed him the job - but it would seem that Rupert Murdoch has also given his son James, the new chief executive of BSkyB, two enormous headaches. The first you know about already: how can the 30-year-old scion persuade the doubters that he got the job on merit and not because Rupert ordered a batch of office-door nameplates at James's christening? That problem is likely to come to a head this Friday, at BSkyB's annual general meeting. The second problem is entirely novel, and of Rupert's deliberate making. When, why Sky One is struggling in the ratings, is Murdoch senior about to launch an entertainment channel that will compete directly with BSkyB?

Next January, Fox International - owned by News Corporation - is planning to bring a British version of its FX channel to this country. Media analysts say it will be targeting the same young, male audience who have traditionally comprised the bulk of Sky One's viewers.

Is Rupert Murdoch deliberately pitching Fox's FX against a channel in which he has only a 35 per cent stake? An influential voice in the City of London explains: "Rupert Murdoch has wanted to get the Fox brand into the UK for years, but Sky has so far resisted it." The former BSkyB chief executive Tony Ball finally lost that battle - but he departed just in time to bequeath an almighty difficulty to his successor.

Rupert Murdoch is bound to want a station that he wholly owns to prosper more than one he partly owns, says the analyst. "In a world of vertical integration, News Corporation is naturally more interested in distributing its own programming via its own channels, since you are really paying yourself in that case."

Another City expert, Johnathan Barrett, a media analyst at Teather & Greenwood, agrees. "Sky One's ad revenues are small beer to News Corp - a small piece of a small piece of its global business," he says.

The complication arrives at a bad time for Sky One, which recently chalked up its lowest ratings in nine years - and, largely as a result, said goodbye to its director of programmes, Sara Ramsden, after just nine months in the job.

So what sort of channel will FX be? In the US, Fox has a family of channels and broadcasts hit shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Simpsons and Temptation Island. Traditionally, when such programmes make their way to Britain, they find a home on Sky One. But with a British Fox channel, that will no longer be a given.

Sophie Turner Laing, Sky One's director of programme acquisitions, takes the new challenge on the chin: "The idea that all our imported Fox titles are going to move over to FX UK simply isn't the case," she says. "The Simpsons will stay with us, so will Buffy and Angel. Competition is a fact of life for Sky - it's just that this time it's a little closer in the family." Sky One has the rights to broadcast archive Fox shows for the next five years. She adds that the new Fox channel will be "a great move for News Corp - Fox has a huge library and it can't all go on Sky One". The channel sees its main business as broadcasting "first-run" shows; FX has concentrated more on repeats.

Similarly, Jason Thorp, Fox International UK's director of broadcasting, diplomatically plays down any idea of sibling rivalry. "News Corp isn't in the business of cannibalising Sky One's audience and certainly not its programming. Sky One is a broader proposition, while we'll be down there with the niche networks."

He is keen to draw a line between his target audience and Sky One's: "We won't be just another channel eating away at the 16-34 male audience," he says. "That market is already very cluttered so we'll be targeting 25-44 year-old men. By aiming older, we'll complement rather than compete with Sky One's offering." Yet the two channels may well find themselves eager to show the same programmes, as Turner Laing admits. She says that she can envisage the two channels jointly buying US programmes, with Sky One getting the UK premiere and FX getting the reruns.

Thorp's first slate of US imports on FX reflects what he admits will be a "tough balancing act" between high-brow and lowest common denominator material. But the daytime hours on FX will be filled with Fox library shows, like Cops and The X-Files, both Sky One staples.

Meanwhile, Sky One may not be the only BskyB channel with cause for concern. The executives at Sky Sports and Sky Movies may want to pay attention to the arrival of their new foreign cousin, too. FX will also air Hollywood blockbusters on weekend evenings and is contemplating the addition of sports into the mix. Even, in time, its own sports channel? "In the US, FX airs a lot of motor-sports like Nascar, and sport is a key part of the FX brand," says Thorp. "We would be crazy to ignore such a major part of male media consumption."

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