Mathew Horsman on the media

There is a great deal of nonsense being written about "pay-per- view" television, ever since Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB announced it would broadcast the Frank Bruno-Mike Tyson boxing contest exclusively on a PPV basis, at pounds 9.95 a pop.

Contrary to what you might read, the choice was not between PPV or ordinary broadcast. Don King, the US boxing promoter with the Bride of Frankenstein hair, insisted that the event be available on pay-per-view only, on the assumption that he could generate as much out of the event here in the UK as he would in the US, where PPV is an established technology. If he hadn't reached a deal with Sky, he would have insisted the event be available only in cinemas and clubs, and at much, much more than a tenner.

Of course, Sky is far from altruistic; nothing Murdoch does could ever be so characterised. Sky went along for its own reasons. First, it wants to test-market the PPV concept in the UK, where no one knows whether there really is an appetite. Until now, we have experimented with limited terrestrial television (only four channels, with one, Channel 5, on its way) and subscription TV (satellite and cable). There isn't a broadcaster in the land who isn't interested in finding out whether the British public will actually pay for "event" television. They will all be watching the Sky experiment very closely.

Once digital television is introduced, there will be wall-to-wall TV channels, and at least some of them will be driven by PPV programming. Everyone, and that includes the BBC and ITV, will be offering programmes this way.

Sky wants to be first, and has the technology in place to do so. Not only does it have channel capacity but it has the country's most sophisticated subscription management system, allowing punters to dial an automated telephone service, order a PPV film or sport event, and await the bill. Sky's subscription service centre then updates the "smart card" inserted in set-top boxes around the country, allowing the signal to be received unscrambled by the TV set.

Sky has also been accused of "making people pay twice". According to this common argument, subscribers to Sky Sports have already stumped up for the right to watch subscription sports, and shouldn't have to pay again. There is some merit to this. The event will be going out live at 4am, on Sky Sports2, one of three satellite sports channels. At that time of day, there are no broadcasts whatsoever. So Sky is merely asking subscribers whether they want to pay extra at a time when there is nothing else on.

But the event will also be repeated three times the following day, pre- empting programming that normally would be going on at that time. Only those who pay the additional pounds 9.95 will receive an unscrambled signal at those repeat times.

Such pre-emptions will not be a problem once new digital capacity is brought on. With scores of new channels to choose from, broadcasters will be able to run films continuously all day, allowing PPV customers to choose their preferred movie and starting time. Sky promises that we will never be more than 15 minutes away from the opening credits of our chosen film.

Sky's experiments should tell us a lot about PPV in Britain. How many viewers will sign up? (US experience suggests about 8 per cent of those who can actually order such PPV events) Is sport the only kind of programming we are willing to pay more for? Can PPV pave the way for the truly revolutionary delivery system, on-demand video? (That's the system, up and running nowhere in the world, where customers can order the film they want from a vast digital library and watch it when they want.)

I, for one, am excited about all this, and don't much care if it is Sky or the BBC or ITV that ushers in the PPV world first.

As ever, however, there is a serious problem with Murdoch and his hold on television. The issue is not sports, or "crown jewels," or whether the Bruno-Tyson match will be available at home or at the cinema. It is not whether the event is broadcast on Sky Sports2 and at what time. It is not whether it costs pounds 9.95 or pounds 129.95. The issue is monopoly.

Sky has secured the rights to Hollywood films and major sporting events. It controls the only functioning encryption technology in the UK, used to scramble and unscramble broadcast signals. It dictates the terms on which its many channels are offered to the cable industry. And it can put its prices up, year after year, just as any monopolist can.

What we need is a competitive environment where several broadcasters bid for programming, where each has access to common broadcasting platforms and where all are able to offer their products to viewers. Sky's monopoly position in pay-TV gets in the way of the market.

The answer is not to pass restrictive bills protecting certain sporting events from the clutches of pay broadcasters, but rather to ensure that all broadcasters have an opportunity to bid openly and fairly for rights. That can't happen when there is a near-monopoly. Just as the Government has moved to encourage competition against British Telecom, in order to break the telephone monopoly, so there ought to be action to curb Sky's dominance in the pay-TV market.

Ask any broadcaster privately what he or she really thinks of Sky's PPV experiments, and you'll hear the obvious answer. They are as interested as Murdoch in how well the system will work in the UK.

Of course, they do not like Sky's dominance, and will no doubt make their views known to the Office of Fair Trading, which is investigating the pay-TV market. But they will pore over the viewing figures from next month's boxing match. Every broadcaster in Britain would love a part of the PPV purse.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Urgent Requirement - Central Manchester

£20000 - £23000 per annum + 20 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: Marketi...

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...

Guru Careers: Social Media Executive / SEO Executive

£20 - 25K + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Social Media...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions