Sky takes up the cultural challenge by investing in British talent and content

What is the network doing to better our cultural life? Rather a lot, actually

Share

After almost a quarter of a century in the British broadcasting firmament, Sky’s satellite network is still struggling to be recognised as a  force for good. Having built its subscriber base on its supply of movies and its coverage of sport – transforming English football forever in the process – it now wishes to be seen as a home of creativity; a primary destination for ambitious drama, original comedy and innovative arts programming.

BSkyB isn’t short of cash. Its latest market-beating results showed it generated £3.75bn in revenues in the last six months of 2013. It may have suffered a bitter blow by losing the Champions League rights to BT Sport – but this will free up money for spending on other content.

But how much is Sky contributing to the global reputation of British television and what is it doing to better our cultural life? Last week in Parliament, BBC grandees such as former chairman Gavyn Davies noted BSkyB’s “central” position in British television, with greater funds than the corporation. Davies questioned whether the current environment was “healthy” for the public.

I remember watching the then BBC Director-General, Mark Thompson, in 2010, when he told the Edinburgh Television Festival: “It’s time that Sky pulled its weight by investing much, much more in British talent and British content.”

A lot has happened since to suggest that Sky has taken up that challenge. Over at BSkyB’s sprawling campus in the western suburbs of London, there is a confidence you don’t often find at other broadcasters. This will be “the biggest year of entertainment at Sky”, promises Stuart Murphy, as you would expect from the head of the network’s entertainment channels (Sky 1, Sky Atlantic, Sky Living, Sky Arts). He can already draw on Sky’s whopping £2.5bn annual programme budget (including £600m on UK content) and BSkyB’s chief executive Jeremy Darroch has suggested this may increase.

Murphy, a former controller of BBC3 who joined the satellite broadcaster in 2009, believes he has been part of a transformation. “It actually feels like the five years of really tough graft is coming good and this is the year when it’s really going to sing at Sky,” he said, adding that the network’s output when he arrived “was a bit hit and miss, if I’m honest”.

The filming activity currently taking place is a sign of Murphy’s aspirations. A warehouse in nearby Hayes has been converted into an Arctic Circle village as the set of Fortitude, a drama starring Stanley Tucci, Michael Gambon, Christopher Ecclestone and Sofie Grabol. It will portray the impact of a murder on an Icelandic community with no experience of crime.

At Longcross Studios, west of London, another set recreates the inside of one of Britain’s new “super hospitals”, the setting for Critical, a real-time medical drama which aims for ultra-realism and will star Lennie James. And “within a stone’s throw” of Sky’s HQ, filming is taking place of the new 13-hour series of 24, to be shown in May. “They’re about two weeks into filming and it’s based in London and about a woman hacking into the British intelligence services,” says Murphy. 24 is an acquisition from 20th Century Fox for Sky 1, although Murphy says there are “lots of Sky people working on the show”. Relationships with American broadcasters are crucial for him. Penny Dreadful, a psychosexual horror co-production with cable network Showtime, is directed by John Logan and produced by Sam Mendes.

Most important of all is the deal with HBO, on which the Sky Atlantic channel depends. The contract – giving Sky access to the cable company’s new shows and back catalogue – has been extended for a further five years. The deal includes plans for a major co-production which Murphy hopes will match the scale and success of Game of Thrones, Sky’s most popular HBO acquisition to date.

Having come from the BBC, Murphy can compare the two cultures. Early in his Sky career, he told then chief executive James Murdoch that he was having mixed success. Murdoch rebuked him for his humility. “He said, ‘We are a retail company and we just need three or four things to work’,” Murphy recalls.

Compared to the BBC, Sky is “unbelievably lean”, even if Murphy acknowledges his considerable resources. And because the management structure is “super flat”, decisions are taken quickly. “Our ratio is three drama scripts developed per one that goes to air. At the BBC it was nearer 20 to 25.”

Murphy spent a day in Hounslow fitting Sky boxes, something all Sky employees must do. He claims to have assembled the “best commissioning team in Britain bar none” and to have created an atmosphere where independent producers “get a very different experience to what they get in other places”. Having installed a library scheme in the office to encourage an aura of creativity, Murphy also boasts that “we are making more comedy now than Channel 4” and that BBC4 looks to Sky Arts for inspiration.

Comedy has given Sky its biggest successes away from the “cinematic television” of its American collaborations. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have made a star and a ratings success out of the Idiot Abroad, Karl Pilkington.

Ruth Jones, who Murphy worked with on Gavin & Stacey when he was at the BBC, has given him Stella, the prime asset of  Sky 1. Jones is writing her first Stella Christmas special and Murphy is receiving invites from Welsh politicians for his services to the principality.

Some will consider these modest cultural contributions for a company with market capitalisation of £14bn. But Sky is a business and its priority is its customer base (broadband and talk as well as television). Even a creative leader like Murphy is conscious of this. “Everyone is aware of what our share price is and if they’re not they are in the wrong place,” he says matter of factly, before heading to Sochi, as a guest  of NBC.

Shining a light on court reporting

How many important stories go unreported because news organisations can no longer afford to attend cases at regional courtrooms? Far more than you’d want in a healthy democracy, I’d say. Even at the Old Bailey – currently awash with journalists because of the phone-hacking trial – the press room is a basement cubbyhole impervious to digital media and a symbol of the criminal justice system’s disdain for court reporting.

So I was pleased to hear that Bill Keller, one of the great editors of the New York Times, has embarked on a noble new adventure titled The Marshall Project, which will shine a new light on the courts and prisons of America.

With a $5m (£3m) annual budget from foundations and private donors, Keller’s team of 30 journalists will investigate, report and commentate with the aim of launching “a national conversation about criminal justice”.

In Britain, the supposedly dry happenings of the law courts, jails and young offenders’ institutions have been increasingly  ignored as our news media embraces a personality-led agenda. I’m not sure we have the private donors here to fund our own version of The Marshall Project – but we could do with one.

Giving women what they want

ITV’s launch of the young women’s channel ITVBe is bold. Recent thinking in television says gender-specific networks must leave the door open for a shared-viewing experience. Sky’s Living has its crime shows so that men don’t walk out of the room. UKTV’s blokey Dave is careful not to exclude women.

Susanna Dinnage, the managing director of Discovery UK, says 30 per cent of the audience of her female-centric TLC channel is male. “It’s really important during the evening when women have got the remote that their husbands can sit down and watch TLC’s content with them. If you want big ratings you have to have breadth.”

But ITVBe is targeted at women aged 16 to 34 because Peter Fincham, ITV’s director of TV, believes there is an audience of “young women and housewives with kids” who crave a bespoke network for the girlie reality shows currently on ITV2.

He’s not often wrong.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Cloud Support Engineer

£25000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a team player who likes...

Recruitment Genius: Skilled Machinist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of additional skilled machini...

Recruitment Genius: Toolmaker

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of additional skilled toolmak...

Langley James : Head of IT; e-commerce; Blackburn; up to £55k

£50000 - £55000 per annum: Langley James : Head of IT; e-commerce; Blackburn; ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Sting may be in for a shock when he tries to save his Broadway musical

David Lister
 

David Cameron’s immigration speech: I broke my promise; this time will be different

John Rentoul
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game