Sky One in crisis as ratings fall and chief quits

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The Independent Online

Sky One, Britain's most popular non-terrestrial television channel, is suffering one of the worst crises in its short history, with falling ratings and the departure of its new boss after less than a year.

The BSkyB flagship, best known for showing The Simpsons, has seen its audience share slip to a nine-year low as viewers have turned away from its mix of sex-based documentaries and racy dramas.

Sara Ramsden has quit as head of the channel only 10 months after Dawn Airey, head of Sky Networks, recruited her from Channel 4. The reasons for Ms Ramsden's departure were not clear, and Sky would not comment, but her replacement was revealed yesterday to be James Baker, a BSkyB veteran who ran the channel in the late 1990s.

Industry insiders speculated that the station could move upmarket after being derided by some as the "home of trash television". Sky One has come to rely on "sex in the sun" reality shows such as The Villa, Temptation Island and Ibiza Uncovered. Kirsty's Home Videos is another staple (with an Uncut! version featuring clips from nudist camps).

Two months ago, Ms Ramsden launched an autumn schedule that included Laid Bare, a documentary strand profiling the tabloid favourites Pamela Anderson, Jodie Marsh and Rachel Hunter. Other programmes in the schedule included The Unofficial World Records of Sex, Vivid XXX and When Sex Goes Wrong (billed as "a selection of disastrous dates and sexual slip-ups").

Ms Ramsden, 43, had a high-brow background which included commissioning science programmes, and some industry observers had expected her to move to BBC 2 rather than the home of Homer Simpson and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In a speech at the schedule launch, she described the offerings as a "provocative programming line-up [which] will appeal strongly to our core audience". But during the first three weeks of September, Sky One averaged only a 2.4 per cent share of multichannel viewing, compared with 3.9 per cent last year. During 2003, the channel's audience share is down by 20 per cent.

Sky One's ratings have been hit by the growth of Freeview (on which it does not feature) and competition from ITV2, E4 and BBC3. Sky insiders pointed out that Sky One's audience share in Sky Digital homes was holding firm.

The channel believes that its output is no more downmarket than that of ITV1, and has high hopes for upcoming American-produced series such as Nip/Tuck, a drama that portrays the "dark side" of the cosmetic surgery industry.

The channel is popular with younger viewers: 47 per cent of its viewers are under 35, compared with 25 per cent of the total television-viewing public.

When Mr Baker was general manager of Sky One in 1998 he was responsible for the channel's original programming, which included shows from comedians such as Harry Enfield, David Baddiel and Al Murray (known as The Pub Landlord). None of these British shows was a great success. In its most recent annual report BSkyB described Sky One as "the home of top US programming".

The disappointing ratings for the flagship channel could influence Sky's plans to launch a mainstream station on Freeview (a so-called Channel Six) to take on BBC1, ITV, Channel 4 and Five.

The problems at Sky One are a rare setback for BSkyB, a company in which Rupert Murdoch, as chairman and chief executive of News Corporation, controls a 35 per cent stake.

THE HITS

The Simpsons

In its 15th season, the cultural phenomenon that is Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, family and friends is the most successful primetime animated series in television history. Tony Blair and J K Rowling appear in the latest series.

Dream Team

The longest-running original drama on non-terrestrial television in the UK, the series tells the story of the on and off-field exploits of Harchester United, a fictional Midlands team. Sky has commissioned seven series and more than 300 episodes.

Fear Factor

Watching people eating horse entrails and putting tarantulas in their mouths may not be everyone's idea of fun but Sky has commissioned a British version of the American reality show that apparently attracts a young and upmarket audience.

... AND THE MISSES

Harry Enfield's Brand Spanking New Show

The apparent coup in poaching Enfield from the BBC turned into a flop as the programme failed to improve on the comedian's earlier work. It was panned by the critics and did not bring in the anticipated audiences.

Ibiza Uncovered

It may have been long-running and successful for Sky One, but this notorious production has been blamed for fuelling, rather than merely depicting, the excesses of young Britons on holiday in the Balearic islands.

Vivid XXX

Described as "light-hearted adult entertainment", this profile of the world's biggest porn company is an example of the programming that has seen the channel accused of becoming "the home of trash television".

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