Casting suspicion 

30 June 2009 tbs.pm/1072

BSkyB’s Mike Darcey attacks ‘culture of dependency’ in UK television

Up to now, BSkyB has enjoyed a near-privileged position as the UK’s dominant pay-TV operator, and this has been tolerated not just because of any claimed political influence that News Corporation may have courtesy of its newspaper division, but also through the prosperity enjoyed by major sporting clubs and other media via Sky’s subscription model.

However more recently there has been a surprising change of direction signalled by central government; notably a hardening of attitude towards the dominance of BSkyB, with the first shot being directed at Sky’s unwillingness to openly share its premium content amongst rivals.

So what has changed recently to suggest that the BSkyB party may now finally be over? Several factors are at play here, including the steadily waning political influence of newspapers (even if their sales haven’t collapsed yet), plus Virgin Media emerging as a major player and BSkyB’s increasing dominance setting off alarm bells both here and in Europe.

This cause for concern is based on the suspicion that parts of what BSkyB is currently doing might be technically speaking illegal under both UK and EU legislation, namely the abuse of sporting (and other) rights in order to shut out any potential competitors to its pay-TV service.

The very recent demise of Setanta Sports (at least in the UK) may also be a contributory factor here, since the earlier failure of ITV Digital could conveniently also be blamed on other factors such as broken pay-TV encryption codes, poor timing and – allegedly – incompetence.

BSkyB seems fit to continue the illusion that it’s still an ‘outsider’ in the media world (and in some respects it still is, courtesy of being the dominant UK pay-TV provider) when this claim suits the thrust of its argument, whilst at the same time happily continuing to assert that it’s the only source of digital TV that’s worth having.

Claims like “Sky might cut back on its investment in UK original production, including drama and arts programming, if it is forced by Ofcom into wholesale deals with other pay-TV operators such as Virgin Media for its premium sport and movie channels” just aren’t valid when Sky Arts is openly used as a commercial selling point for its packages.

Therefore Sky won’t be cutting back on its arts programming unless a rival were to launch an arts channel (very unlikely in the current climate), or that Sky Arts (HD) somehow wasn’t effective enough in attracting and retaining Sky TV subscribers; Sky needs lots of HD channels as a major selling point, at least for the next couple of years.

BSkyB’s current contribution to television drama is still microscopic to say the least, and again it’s very probable that any recent small increase in drama production is attestable to Sky just attempting to fill a void that is appearing as a result of ITV plc scaling back on its drama ambitions.

Plus to suggest that US drama House would be ‘lost’ as a result is simply laughable when you realise that Channel Five would have been showing it effectively free of charge anyway if Sky hadn’t put in a higher bid, and another (possibly free-to-air) broadcaster would have picked up HBO’s The Pacific if Sky couldn’t have acquired it in the first place.

Put another way, the free-to-air commercial television broadcast model may be suffering as the result of several factors but is still viable enough at present to deliver a reasonably comprehensive range of programming (ITV’s woes are a special case in themselves) without the noble assistance of Sky.

When you start to analyse the claims being made by BSkyB representatives in greater depth and parts of them start to unravel at the seams, the problem is that you cannot go on making unsubstantiated claims if you want to be treated seriously, therefore still behaving as if you’re an unchallengeable monopoly will get you nowhere fast.

And perhaps into trouble just as quickly.