Wanted: some clever viewers

Will Nip/Tuck and 24 attract an upmarket audience to Sky One, home to Porno Valley and Sex on the Job? Alex Benady reports
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The Independent Online

If you are youngish and middle-class, and the ad men have got their calculations right, then you should have seen the posters over the past fortnight. "Sometimes a boob job is the best cure for depression," shouts one. "Ugliness demeans us all," another declares. "If you were better looking, you'd be better paid, better liked, happier," says a third. The advertisements - which have already garnered 70 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority - are for the American television series Nip/Tuck.

The urbane tone suggests a programme on BBC2, Channel 4 or perhaps E4. In fact, Nip/Tuck is on Sky One, home to Laid Bare, Sex on the Job and Porno Valley. Sophisticated they ain't.

The Nip/Tuck campaign is Sky's biggest programme promotion in years and a sign that not only Sky One but the entire Sky operation is being eased gently but firmly upmarket. "At one level, the posters are simply a reflection of the show we are trying to sell. It's stylish, witty and provocative," says Nick Howarth, managing director of the advertising agency HHCL/Red Cell, which created the posters. "But the role of the posters is also to make people re-evaluate Sky One. Although it's a mass-market campaign, it does target young, affluent, ABC1 families. It represents a step change in the quality of Sky One's output."

The channel's push for the middle classes is not limited to a smart sell for one smart series. It recently snaffled the third series of the cult serial 24 from BBC2. The Handler, a gritty drama starring the Emmy award-winner Joe Pantoliano, formerly of The Sopranos, started this month. And it has plans to run Las Vegas, a "slick and stylish" series starring James Caan as a former CIA agent.

The idea, says Sky One's controller, James Baker, is to create hot spots of high-quality programming. "The point is to try to build a geography for Sky One, so you know exactly what you are going to get on certain nights." So, Monday night will be blokes' night, with programmes such as Britain's Hardest (a game show designed to find "the toughest bloke in the land"); Sunday will provide populist alternatives to reality TV; and Tuesday and Saturday will have a more female bias, with a diet of first-run, high-quality American shows.

Damien Hodge, senior television buyer at the advertising company Mediacom, says: "Sky One's main problem is that last year it suffered a huge decline in audience share - 14 per cent." That decline was not all Sky's fault. The fast-growing Freeview - the £60 box that delivers digital TV with no subscription fee - does not offer Sky One. But the channel has lost its way, Hodge says. "Previously, it had been associated with the best US programming. But it lost Friends and ER to E4, the first two series of 24 to the BBC, and then CSI and Law and Order to Channel 5."

It is claimed in some quarters that Sky One's flagship show, The Simpsons, accounts for a quarter of the channel's viewers.

Cynics say that until now Sky One has not been important enough to Sky for it to matter. The reason that most TV stations invest in quality is that good programming attracts viewers, which in turn attract advertising revenue, their only source of income. But advertising accounts for only about one-eighth of Sky's income.

Now, though, two things have changed. First, Sky finds itself with cash to spare. It made £260m in the 12 months to last June, its first profit in five years. More important, it has reached its goal of seven million subscribers. It now wants to add a further million. The trouble is that, by definition, this untapped market is immune to Sky's traditional blandishments. Hodge says: "Sky's offer has used films and football as its magic formula. But if you haven't gone for it in the past, there's no particular reason that you will now."

At present, Sky One is what you might call "the tallest of the dwarves" - the biggest of the digital and satellite channels. But it still lags some way behind the terrestrial channels; and it needs to rival their standing if it is to secure a respectable portion of the remaining 49 per cent of homes that have not yet converted to digital television.

The early signs for Sky One's new strategy are mixed. The first episode of Nip/Tuck, last week, attracted about one million viewers, 9 per cent of the digital audience. The Handler managed just 400,000.

'24' starts next month