Magnificent Seven come out of retirement

Granada's new satellite services have an elderly look, says Meg Carter
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The Independent Online
Granada immodestly calls it the Magnificent Seven, a clear indication of the high hopes it has for its family of seven new satellite services launching on 1 October. Others are unconvinced. One cable insider sums up the problem neatly: "Granada has come at this from a terrestrial station point of view, not by starting with the question: `Is there a gap in the market, can we fill it?' It's product-led, not market-led."

Granada's satellite channels have been developed in partnership with BSkyB, Rupert Murdoch's pay-TV giant, under a joint venture, Granada Sky Broadcasting (GSB). The line-up comprises seven "channels" (in fact, most are really "strands" of themed programmes sharing the same Astra satellite transponder).

The flagship service is Granada Plus, a nostalgia channel like UK Gold, which mines the extensive Granada and LWT libraries. Core to its schedule is Coronation Street, which will run daily, re-running every episode first broadcast on ITV since 1976. Older ones will appear packaged as specials, such as The Life and Loves of Ken Barlow and The Trials and Tribulations of Elsie Tanner.

Other Granada Plus fare confirmed at launch includes Poirot, Brass, Jeeves & Wooster, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, A Fine Romance, Bless Me Father and Please Sir! Around 20 per cent of its output will be original commissions.

The schedule is meant to be secret. But The Independent has learnt that launch-day highlights include Crown Court (showing three times), Medics (twice), The Grumbleweeds and two hours of vintage Corrie.

The six other "channels" are themed to appeal to particular groups of viewers: Men and Motors will go out at night after Granada Plus; Granada Good Life, which comprises Health & Beauty, Food & Wine, Home & Garden and TV High Street, will share another Astra transponder with the seventh "channel", Talk TV.

GSB's chief executive, Stuart Prebble, believes all this is both unique and appealing. "The Granada and LWT archives are probably the only remaining unexploited archives of library programmes, and their depth and variety is significant," he says. He makes no excuses for Coronation Street sitting at the heart of the Granada Plus schedule: "Twenty-four million people watched Hilda Ogden's last episode. It is our strongest property, the world's most successful TV programme." He adds: "On 1 October, perceived differences [in quality] between terrestrial and traditional cable and satellite channels will start being eroded."

Not everyone is so sure. For a start, where are the great Granada-LWT series, such as Brideshead Revisited and Jewel in the Crown, or entertainment classics such as Barrymore and early Blind Date? One leading satellite executive says: "They face a number of problems, notably rights and clearance for archive programmes. Although there's now a new standard Equity agreement, the problems don't stop there."

In fact, before a broadcaster can retransmit library material it must revisit original stars (who are not covered by the standard Equity deal) and writers, many of whom might have been involved in just a single series, negotiating payment to cover the programme's repeat. It is a long and tricky process. Industry folklore has it that when UK Gold ran The Sweeney and Minder it had to send out more than a thousand letters to clear it for broadcast.

Prebble concedes that there have been problems, but says that he has access to everything in the Granada and LWT libraries. The reason for not scheduling certain high-profile programmes up front is "not to burn out too soon". He insists: "There is nothing we would have wanted to launch with that we cannot."

The criticisms extend to the "niche" channels as well, with some claiming that the concept brings nothing new and, in some cases, duplicates what is already on offer. Independent producers talk of leisure and lifestyle programme budgets at GSB of just pounds 500 for half an hour, compared with ITV standards of around pounds 10,000. Quality and depth will inevitably be hit, they warn.

"If I make a 12-part drama for ITV, all costs must be covered out of those 12 hours," Prebble says. "With GSB, I can make 12 hours of programming, 52 weeks a year, for years and the cost becomes invisible as an individual programme cost." How? Thanks to shared facilities and economies of scale, of course.

Cable operators are interested, if cautious, although none has so far agreed to carry the channels. Jon Daniel, marketing director, programming, at Bell Cablemedia says he is keen to cash in on the inevitable fanfare surrounding the GSB's launch. However, he is still discussing which channels his networks will carry. "I am not totally convinced by Good Life and Talk TV," he says.

Advertising agencies who have seen GSB's sales presentation say they have been made verbal predictions of GSB channels taking between a 3.6 and 4.5 per cent share of cable and satellite viewing.

Andrew Canter, group TV buying director at the media buying specialist Mediapolis, endorses this, although he observes: "The advertising industry wants them to grow the [total] commercial audience. I'm not sure they will."

Why? Because it is becoming increasingly difficult to offer programming that is genuinely new. And because scheduling has made a quantum leap from the days of just ITV vs the BBC. According to one source who was closely involved in developing the GSB service, Granada has scorned Sky's proven expertise in programming and scheduling decisions - a move it may come to regret.