BSkyB’s digital dream will need publicity to become a reality

Publicity-shy BSkyB will need to do some more talking if it is to find enough broadcasters to fill its 200 digital channels.By Torin Douglas. Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC Radio

Elisabeth Murdoch was safely out of the country by the time her lengthy interview in The Guardian was published last week. Not that she had anything to be afraid of. It revealed her as remarkably articulate, knowledgeable and assured, happy to answer almost all questions (and when ducking an awkward one – such as how she would vote – doing so with style). Few 28-year-olds could put up such a polished performance outside their home territory – but then few are the off spring of Rupert Murdoch.

Whether she gives another interview remains to be seen. Since the departure of David Elstein, BSkyB has been quite bashful in putting spokespeople forward. In some ways this is understandable – Sky has taken a lot of knocking from rival media, not least over the issue of digital TV.

Yet Sky has many arguments in its support, as Elstein demonstrated every time he spoke. They were put extremely well to MPs just before Christmas when David Chance, BSkyB’s deputy chief executive, addressed the National Heritage Committee on the future of television. But when broadcasters put in requests for interviews on the issue of digital TV, there was no response.

Sky feels that it has been misrepresented, and that when it does try to put forward its case, it is under-reported. And Elisabeth Murdoch admits a personal reluctance to talk to the media. In her Guardian interview with John Mulholland she said: “I think the less one says, the safer it is. I think it’s more to do with a cautious approach than anything else. I mean what does one get out of it?

Mulholland: “Publicity?” Murdoch: “Why does one need publicity?” Mulholland: “BSkyB might,” Murdoch: “That’s the other point. If there’s obviously a reason from a work point of view, fine. For personal publicity reasons I would have absolutely no want or need for it at all.”

From a work point of view, there will soon be an obvious reason for Sky to start giving interviews. Assuming it is still going flat-out for an autumn digital launch, Sky will need someone to explain why we should want digital, how we will get it, and why we shoul not be afraid of the gatekeeper.

In the short term, that spokesperson will not be Elisabeth Murdoch, who is expecting her second child in the next few months. But in time might we see her as the public face of BSkyB?

As BSkyB’s general manager broadcasting, responsible for its programming, she could have a major influence on what sort of channels Sky will offer on its 200-station digital menu. Already she has put her own stamp on Sky 1 by introducing theme nights and revamping the schedules – “I’ve tried to apply some common sense,” she told The Guardian, which puts Elstein in his place. It is too soon to say if her changes will prove successful, but she will not be slow to apply other lessons from her US experience.

An intriguing question is whether she will put her own money where her mouth is. For while she has been working for BSkyB, her husband – a Ghanaian banker called Elkin Pianim – has been launching a new media venture in the UK, backed by his own and Elisabeth’s money. While The Guardian was interviewing his wife, I was interviewing him.

In 1994, the couple bought two California TV stations for $35m (22m). By cutting the staff and increasing the ratings, they were able to sell them a year later for a profit of $12m (7.5m). Through their venture capital company Idaho Partners, some of that money has been invested in the launch of New Nation, a black weekly paper, which since November has been competing with The Voice for the hearts and wallets of Afro-Caribbeans in Britain.

“It’s an interesting niche market,” says Pianim. “Under-developed and growing fast.”

To build on New Nation’s position, he’s just bought Europe’s leading black exhibition – the Afro Hair & Beauty Exhibition, which is held each year at Alexandra Palace. He’s planning to expand it beyond the hair, fashion and beauty sectors.

You may not be surprised to hear he is also discussing broadcasting launches for the Afro-Caribbean market – including a digital TV channel. “You’d probably have to go on cable or digital satellite, because Sky’s analogue capacity is full,” he says. And he insists his wife’s connections cut no ice: there is no chance of getting an analogue satellite channel, and capacity is not a problem with digital satellite, so no one needs to pull strings to get one.

Might Sky invest in such a station, as it has with Granada Sky Broadcasting (GSB) and others? “We’ll take money from anyone,” he laughs. But the broadcasting ventures remain some way off.

Given the performance of GSB so far, Murdoch and Pianim might do better not to invest their own money in television. When GSB launched Granada Plus, Granada Talk and the Granada Good Life mini-channels last autumn, its chief executive Stuart Prebble said they were looking ahead to the digital age, testing niche channels that would soon become viable when digital transmission brought down the cost of renting a transponder.

But in ratings terms, GSB’s channels have barely troubled the scorer and its director of broadcasting, Cherry Cole, is to leave. They have been hampered by transmitting on Astra 1D, which cannot be received by many subscribers. But will they fare any better when competing with more than 100 channels, rather than a few dozen?

It’s a question Elisabeth Murdoch and the other BSkyB directors must get to grips with if they are to find the broadcasters willing to fill 200 channels of digital space.

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