Ian Burrell: Entertainment takes the driving seat as Sky goes for the big push

Media on Monday
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The Independent Online

In his quirkier younger days, Stuart Murphy had a blue aquarium for his desk. But he lost the tank when, in Cosa Nostra parlance, he ended up swimming with the fishes.

"I got rid of that when I got fired," he says, referring to his ill-advised spell at production company RDF, which he joined after a star turn running BBC3.

But Murphy, still only 39, will come back firing tomorrow, blazing away in high definition. He will launch his new channel, Sky Atlantic, with Martin Scorsese's Prohibition era gangster drama Boardwalk Empire. Then he'll serve up more mob stories with a re-run of The Sopranos from the very first episode and all in HD.

Those who have caught the Sky Atlantic ads in cinemas, will be in no doubt as to the scale of the satellite broadcaster's ambition. Thanks to a five-year deal with HBO, the channel will offer Treme, the latest drama from David Simon (creator of crime classic The Wire), and Game of Thrones, which has been described as "The Sopranos in Middle Earth".

And – much to the chagrin of fans who have become used to watching Mad Men on the BBC – Sky Atlantic will screen the fifth series of life at the mythical Madison Avenue ad shop Sterling Cooper.

The launch coincides with BSkyB's announcement last week of rocketing profits, which analysts expect to reach £500m for the first half of the financial year. The figures support BBC Director General Mark Thompson's warning at last year's Edinburgh Television Festival that Sky is "well on its way to being the most dominant force in broadcast media in this country". Murphy, who is BSkyB's Director of Programmes across not just Sky Atlantic but also Sky1, Sky2 and Sky3, does nothing to dispel this notion as he enthuses about the "big push" that starts tomorrow. "For 20 years Sky has used sport and movies to drive the business and now it's about using entertainment to drive the business," he says. Murphy answers criticisms of his "stolen" content by saying "other channels treated it appallingly" and that "most people are working and are knackered during the week and can't stay up until 11pm".

Sky Atlantic will screen its best shows at 9pm on Saturdays, attempting to win the sort of reputation that HBO enjoys in America for its Sunday night schedule. "I'm not pretending we will take millions of viewers away from The X Factor but it's a brilliant high quality alternative for people who are a bit bored of the current offering on Saturday nights," says Murphy, who argues that the cost of Sky is no more than many British HBO fans pay for boxsets.

Other television industry stalwarts such as Dawn Airey and Richard Woolfe have previously promised that Sky was on the cusp of making its name in entertainment programming. This time the pledge has more credibility, partly because of the resources being pumped in.

In Sky homes, the broadcaster's channels will have enhanced profile, with Sky1, Sky Living and Sky Atlantic at the front of the electronic programme guide, beneath only the terrestrial channels. Sky 1 is being given more money for its "blockbuster romp" dramas, and Sky Living (aimed primarily at women) will have a 25 per cent increase in budget.

Then there is Sky Arts, another pincer in the strategy to woo educated viewers. That channel will break new ground next month with the first screening of an opera live in 3D as it broadcasts the ENO's production of Lucrezia Borgia from The Coliseum in London. The opera is being directed by Mike Figgis, better known for his film work, and he has been asked to make a "director's cut" for television. "He's talking about having small cameras in some of the costumes of some of the talent, he's going to have back behind the scenes stuff," says John Cassy, the Sky Arts channel director. "He's a guy of huge creative calibre and an amazing imagination, and we have said to him ok let it run wild. With Sky Arts [we aim to] give really smart creative people an environment where they can indulge their dreams."

Murphy talks about the need to give "cinematic" content to viewers with large television screens and a taste for HD. The company strategy, he says, is about reducing the number of subscribers who "churn out" of Sky subscriptions as much as winning new viewers.

He is supremely confident, but then he's seen what HBO has coming down the line. "A broadcaster like HBO could just sit there on their brand laurels and coast but looking at their slate you're thinking 'Oh my God!'. Lots of them are big risky commissions and you think hats off to them they don't sit back but are constantly taking punts."