This column comes to you care of good old ink on fish 'n' chip paper. But for how long?
Tuesday 12 November 1996
I was therefore much chuffed to be told by an "Internet journalist" that print media has a terrific future. New online services are meant to be an adjunct to the print version, not a replacement. We won't all be virtual reporters, filing virtual copy to virtual "readers".
But clearly some of us will. The giant computer software company Microsoft, in league with its long-established joint-venture partner NBC, are planning to launch an Internet news service in the UK from January next year, featuring text and audio on subjects ranging from straight news and features to sport and business coverage.
At first, just seven reporters will work out of Microsoft's UK headquarters in Reading, although a move to a more central location, probably Soho, is planned for next year. All seven will do two weeks' training in Seattle, near Microsoft's Washington State headquarters.
The new service will be modelled to a degree on MSNBC's current online service in the US, staffed by 120 journalists, and linked to the company's 24-hour all-news channel, launched early this year. It will be some time, of course, before staff numbers get anywhere near that level here in the UK.
While the company has yet to confirm it, there is every chance that the Internet news service will be supplemented in time by an all-news service on digital television. Plans for 200 channels from autumn next year, well advanced at BSkyB's Isleworth headquarters, will be reliant on signing up enough programme providers to fill the available space. A 24-hour business channel is already in the planning stages, backed by financial information giant Bloomberg. BSkyB is sure to be interested in other quality services, and MSNBC, which has already signed up 30 million potential viewers for its TV channel in the US, looks a good prospect.
The Reading-based service will be heavily reliant on news wire services, at least at first. The small team is likely to be stretched, even so, as the company intends to have a seven-day operation more or less from launch (seven people, seven days. Hmm. Don't like the arithmetic).
MSNBC intends to launch similar services in Germany and France as well. In each case, the idea is to start small, and grow organically.
It must be a nerve-wracking move for a print journalist to join Bill Gates's team at this stage of the information revolution. While Internet use is growing in the UK, it is an industry still very much in its infancy. So far, most Web sites have been afterthoughts by established print players such as Rupert Murdoch's News International (publisher of The Times and the Sun) and The Guardian, which has made, arguably, the biggest commitment to date.
Still, there are advantages to getting in on the ground floor. MSNBC's journalists will get a crash course in Internet technology, courtesy of a Web Master expert who will lead the technical team. They will also get the buzz of knowing their stories can be read within minutes of filing, just like the work of news wire reporters.
Last weekend's boxing match in Las Vegas between Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson was a thriller, by all accounts. But those of us on media watch were intrigued less by the fight than by the way it was broadcast in the UK. For only the second time in British TV history, the bout was offered on a pay-per-view basis - limited to those who paid pounds 9.95 (early bookings) or pounds 14.95 for the privilege of watching.
Earlier this year, when BSkyB announced that the Mike Tyson-Frank Bruno battle would only be available on PPV, there was a huge outcry. "Why should we be asked to pay twice?" was the common complaint from those who were already paying up to pounds 24.99 a month (since raised to pounds 26.99) to receive Sky's premium sports channels. Yet 660,000 did so, more than 15 per cent of eligible subscribers, making it the most successful pay-per-view event on either side of the Atlantic.
This time, even with no British fighter in the match, the results were resoundingly impressive: 420,000 subscribers signed up, and that doesn't count the pubs, theatres and other multi-viewer venues.
BSkyB earned a cool pounds 5m, of which half went to the fight's promoters. Without a doubt, pay-per-view can work in Britain. The City, of course, already thought so. According to the most recent estimates from Salomon Brothers, the US-owned merchant bank, pay-per-view is set to become the fastest growing media sector bar none, generating as much as pounds 9bn a year in Europe by 2005.
It makes you wonder when the Premier League clubs, which currently show all their matches on Sky Sports, will finally decide to launch their own pay-per-view business. One-off boxing might be a nice little earner, but just imagine what you could do with top football.
BSkyB professes not to be worried about moves by the League to develop its own PPV plans, since Sky's current rights to the sport run until 2001, with a built-in agreement to discuss PPV after two years. But there is a catch. The Restrictive Practices Court, which reviews cosy deals such as the one between Sky and the League, could insist that the contract be torn up, and replaced with individual agreements between Sky and each club. That would open up the option of negotiating pay-per-view deals much earlier than originally planned, and could lead to a much higher payment from BSkyB to retain the rights to the big teams (Man United, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle and Chelsea, anyway). Watch this space
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