When the sex doesn't work

Sky One hopes that ditching 'adult' programming will halt a ratings slump. Dawn Airey, its managing director, unveils her strategy to Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

With her cheeky grin, oodles of self-confidence and notoriously risqué sense of humour, the last thing you expect from the elfin Dawn Airey is for her to come over all coy. One of the most powerful women in British television, the managing director of Sky Networks was once the self-proclaimed queen of the "football, films and fucking" philosophy of scheduling. Now she's changed her tune, and her new motto is "Sun, sand and shagging is not what we are about."

Airey has ordered a cull of Sky One's sexual content in an attempt to rebrand the channel as a beacon of quality television that will draw new subscribers to BSkyB. "I think you will find us steering clear of programming with an adult content for a while," she says. "You won't be having any more sex surveys or that very deliberately overt programming about sex as entertainment."

Later today, Airey will unveil the BSkyB flagship channel's autumn schedule. It will be a key moment in the company's strategy for meeting the chief executive James Murdoch's pledge of delivering 10 million subscribers by 2010. And to help achieve that, Airey has brought in Tyler Brulé's Winkreative agency to give Sky One a new upmarket logo, replacing the old orange design with a modern olive-green ident that looks like it says "Sky Onc".

"People are interested in sex and sexuality, but this is a renaissance of a brand and there are certain things we don't want to be defined by," says Airey. "We were too closely associated with the Ibiza Uncovereds. At the time they were extraordinary, but the franchise rolled on a bit too long."

This time last year, Sara Ramsden, who was then Sky One controller (hired by Airey), previewed a schedule that included such offerings as Vivid XXX ("the story of the adult industry's greatest success"), The Unofficial World Records of Sex, When Sex Goes Wrong and The Big Fantasy ("everything you ever wanted to know about sex in Britain today"). Airey, 43, admits that the quality-control had not been tight enough, and that Sky subscribers had been paying for "a lot of stuff that was maybe not quite good enough".

And that, according to Airey, had to change. She has sidelined the sex programmes, along with the camcorder-clip show Kirsty's Home Videos (think shots of elderly relatives falling over, spliced with footage from nudist camps). "We have moved away from all that," she says. "Programmes like that reinforce the prejudice that some people have about Sky, that it's just The Simpsons and shagging. It's not that; it's a far more sophisticated offering."

The first attempts to take Sky One upmarket became apparent earlier this year, with the acquisition of quality US dramas about Californian plastic surgeons, high-rollers and secret agents - programmes such as Nip/Tuck, Las Vegas and 24. Nevertheless, in the pick'n'mix world of multi-channel television that BSkyB has helped create, this approach doesn't appear to be working.

Airey - who was widely touted as a possible chief executive of ITV, but insists that she would not be working 14 hours a day at Sky if she was not happy where she is - says that she is prepared to deal "head on" with questions about disappointing audiences for Sky One. "The ratings have gone down," she admits, claiming that the channel's absence on the free-to-air Freeview service is largely responsible.

When pressed, she acknowledges that Sky One's ratings are down 11 per cent even in Sky Digital homes, where the Freeview argument does not apply. "I would prefer ratings to be up, but there's a whole host of competition. We have had an amazing summer - look at what Big Brother is doing, which is significantly better than last year. And we have had Euro 2004. We've all taken a kicking - look at ITV, they are posting all-time lows."

Even Bart, Lisa, Homer and Marge don't pull them in like they used to. Airey says that she doesn't understand why The Simpsons is down 11 per cent year on year in ratings. She says that it has "nothing to do" with the programme's quality, but she notes that the channel's demographics are changing. "We know that the audience is getting older. Sky One remaining a youth proposition is not the place to be if we want to grow."

Poor ratings are not good news for a company that this month watched £2bn disappear off its share value amid concerns over falling subscriber numbers (81,000 in the last quarter compared to expectations of 115,000), and in spite of record operating profits of £600m. The collapse was partly ascribed to a lack of confidence in the chief executive, James Murdoch.

Asked to describe her boss's early record, Airey (who has a wide remit that includes being in charge of Sky Movies and Sky News) prefixes her view with a promise that she is not attempting to "blow smoke up his rectum - that is not my style". But she says: "He's incredibly bright, he learns quickly and he is also incredibly personable and has, I think, got quite exceptional emotional intelligence."

It is clear she is happier working for Murdoch than for his predecessor, Tony Ball. "He is a team player and he is inclusive. When you are in a room with him there's no doubting who is the boss, but the previous chief executives have been, in terms of style, very different from James, almost Stalinist I would say."

Naturally Airey - who made her name as director of programmes at Channel 4 and as chief executive of Channel Five (where she made the "three Fs" comment) - is defensive of BSkyB's record. The City's punishment was, she says, "pretty harsh... that's more than six of the best". The group will bounce back, she says. "Why do people doubt us? We've only ever delivered in the past, we are only ever going to deliver in the future."

Sky One's strategy is to pepper its peak schedule with a few high-quality programmes that it hopes will draw in new subscribers. "It's about discrete marketing of content to discrete audience groups that for whatever reason have failed to come to us to date," says Airey, who will be given a budget increase of up to 20 per cent. Deadwood, made by HBO, is set in the Wild West, but features the former Lovejoy actor Ian McShane as a pimp and a murderer. "When I first saw The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, they blew me away in terms of the original way that they dealt with the Mafia and with undertakers. This will do the same for your view of the Wild West," says Airey.

The loss to Sky One of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been very damaging, and so Airey has also brought in Hex, a "UK version" of the show. "It is certainly the most ambitious drama that Sky One has ever commissioned," says Airey, who is anxious to challenge the notion that Sky does not make any quality original programming.

Sky has made its mistakes, she admits. It failed to renew the rights to Friends and ER (which were instead snapped up by Channel 4), and was half asleep when the reality-TV revolution broke out. "A tsunami overtook us, which was reality TV," says Airey. "Sky should have been at the forefront of that, but we sort of missed that boat."

Airey is now trying to make up for that by chasing the Geordie Toon Army, and she is hoping to fill Newcastle United's St James' Park ground with spectators for the culmination of her reality experiment, The Match. "It's a team of legends vs celebrities, and you follow them over a week as they train, and then over the football match, 45 minutes each way," she says. "This is a massively expensive show for us - it's costing millions and millions of pounds. But you know what? It should work, because it plays to our core strengths of sport and entertainment."

St James' Park holds 58,000 people, but the irrepressible Airey has no doubt that her reality show will be a total sell-out. "It will be full," she says. "People will be fighting for tickets."