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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
  • @iburrell

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.