The satellite channels’ viewing share is already on the increase, and the arrival of digital TV means even more options will become available for viewers and advertisers

BARB’s August figures for satellite viewing show the satellite channels taking a 39 per cent share of viewing in satellite homes – the highest to date. The same report shows this non-terrestrial viewing took an 11 per cent share of all TV viewing in the UK, about 20 per cent of all commercial TV viewing. It is a force to be reckoned with.

Yet BARB reported individual channel figures for only 15 channels, plus figures for four hybrid channels. TNT & Cartoon Network, for example, are reported under one title in the weekly BARB Satellite TV Yellow Book. Indeed, the second largest reported satellite channel (Sky One still being the single most viewed channel) rejoiced under the name of “other channels”, and took nearly ten per cent of satellite viewing.

Currently more than 60 satellite channels are available, and BSkyB alone will launch an additional 11 channels before Christmas. This is not the digital explo- sion, these are additions to the current line-up of analogue channels. They include new channels like Sky Sports Three and Granada Plus that will gain significant audiences.

To deal with this plethora of channels, satellite viewers have become more selective. This August, only a quarter of their viewing was with BBC1, a quarter to ITV, 18 per cent to Sky Channels, and six per cent and seven per cent respectively to BBC2 and Channel 4. The remaining fifth (over 20 per cent) of their viewing was of the other 40-plus channels.

Essential tools are Sky’s TV Guide and the Cable Guide, but close behind comes zapping: clicking across channels until something catches your fancy. For young people, those brought up on satellite TV, this is a major route to finding out about new channels. The History Channel attracts regular audiences of about 60,000 viewers, and most of these probably found the channel by zapping and liking what they saw.

Hence channel branding on air becomes more and more im-portant: if viewers arrive by zapping, you must make sure they know where they are. Radio learnt this lesson well, and station idents are broadcast with monotonous frequency.

Nobody yet knows how many channels will be available in the digital age, or what they will be, how many will be special interest channels, and how many time-shifted channels (alternative start times for high-interest programmes). Sky has already promised a new pay-per-view movie service, and seems certain to launch near-video-on-demand movies in 1997. This will allow viewers to choose from alternative start times for the movies.

All this means a huge learning curve for viewers, advertisers, agencies, TV sales houses and researchers. Viewers need new navigational aids; advertisers, agencies and TV sales houses need new information to take advantage of the new opportunities; and researchers need to provide this information.

ITV will remain the dominant channel, but the opportunities for selective TV buying are increasing. TV is fragmenting, to the benefit of the viewer, who gets more choice, and to the benefit of the advertiser, who gets an increasing range of opportunities.

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