LIKE A comet preceding the end of the world, the belated roll- out of the digital BSkyB was preceded by many frightening sightings of Elisabeth Murdoch, the newly promoted head of programming. Elisabeth, aka Baby Murdoch, is known as the acceptable face of Daddy Rupert’s empire, and is being deployed to confuse and disarm the digital opposition.
In one of her recent comments, Baby M announced that BSkyB is not the sole preserve of football-crazy, TV-dinner-eating young males, but is in fact just the opposite. The Sky that Elisabeth sees is a caring and sharing broadcaster that welcomes and embraces womenfolk, sisters and ladies world-wide. To me, the people at Sky have always seemed to be high on something (perhaps it’s just the excitement of skinning alive 5 million football addicts), but this was too intriguing to miss. After pouring myself a stiff drink, I took a deep breath and ventured into the tabloid-on-satellite airspace to check that new-found, female- friendly programming. Sadly, a short glimpse into the Sky output made me run for cover, ducking between soccer, rugby and a bunch of blood-thirsty movies.
The attempts to create a personality cult of Elisabeth Murdoch as Sky’s programming guru have not been limited to gravity-defying quotes on a change of gender preferences at Sky. The nub of Sky’s new concept is not her cameo appearance as Daddy’s-girl-turned-omnipotent-satellite prophet, but something called “multiplexing”. Perplexed? You will be.
Multiplexing, in satellite lingo, means showing the same programme many times during the course of the day on different channels, in order to fill the unimaginable number of hours on the 200 available channels with some vaguely acceptable viewing material. In other words, multiplexing is about repeats and recycling.
But if recycling is a laudable way of treating your garbage, it is a bad solution to the problem of multi-channel programming. It has taken Sky almost four years and many millions of pounds of investors’ hard cash to develop digital satellite TV, and all we have to show for it is an aviation documentary, shot by the BBC circa 1956, on 10 different channels. That apparently is the digital TV folks’ concept of video-on-demand, and, yes, “consumer choice”. People are already paying Sky subscriptions to watch the same programmes appearing twice during the day. But, according to Baby M, it is going to get much worse.
Apart from multiplexing, Sky has cleverly developed the second leg in its imaginative strategy – niche markets. According to Mark Booth, Sky’s hapless leader, digital TV will deliver niche programming for hobbyists interested in sport (surprise, surprise), music, documentaries and whatever other anthropological niches Elisabeth can dig out.
This is bizarre logic, for in terms of efficiency of advertising versus production costs, Internet websites have already established themselves as the best medium for niche programming, particularly because websites feature interactive, community-building tools such as forums, chat rooms and e-mail. These generate up-to-date know-ledge and provide a support system for the online community – which non-interactive TV cannot do.
From www. theonion. com to www. proteintv. co. uk, the hobbyists rule online. Since most of the programming comes from experts in their areas – people who often do not charge a fee for contributions – the costs are kept down. The Internet has only recently upped the ante on video, but already sites such as www. proteintv. co. uk prove that there is no mystery in creating video-based programming.
Real Audio, Adobe Premiere 5.0 and Firewire provide an inexpensive set- up for a small, desktop video-editing operation. It is almost as easy as putting together HTML pages. Since story-telling is a skill as old as humankind, there will be no shortage of storytellers making interesting Internet video programs as soon as the bandwidth allows their distribution. The difference between programme-making for television and for the Internet these days is, to a large degree, purely psychological.
TV editing tools are expensive. The operators of Harry and Avid editing suites are surrounded by a cloud of mystery and there is a gigantic gap between programme makers and the consumers. One-to-many is firmly established as the TV programming paradigm, with all the appropriate rituals embedded in the broadcast world.
On the other hand, the Internet has allowed a two-way, many-to-many medium, where niche programming is often produced by hobbyists. Since it is supplemented by bulletin boards, newsgroups and e-mail, the production of websites is widely distributed, with many contributors over the period of a site’s existence.
That is why niche programming will not be easy to replicate on digital TV, because, short of setting up a public TV studio in every town, the tools to make such programming are beyond the scope of even the most committed hobbyist.
And as Elisabeth Murdoch has discovered, there simply are not enough production people in the TV industry to provide the required thousands of hours of low-cost, high-quality programming. That is why she is trying to kid us with multiplexing, making a virtue out of necessity. So if Elisabeth were to think outside her role of media tycoon in the making, she could produce programming that is perhaps more exciting than endless repeats disguised as multiplexing.
Courage, boldness and embracing the new global, many-to-many, interactive media world are the only way for Baby M to become a real first among equals, rather than just a family firm trainee. Hanging on to old concepts and Rupert Murdoch’s view of the broadcasting world is not going to make digital Sky move the Earth for anybody.
It is quality, not quantity, that will determine whether digital TV can make its mark in the 21st century.