Granada Sky teething troubles triggers professional changes

Disappointing viewing figures have led even the mighty GSB to alter its schedule. How then will new channels fare with the launch of digital TV? By Torin Douglas. Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC Radio

Walk into the offices of Granada Sky Broadcasting (GSB) and the chances are you’ll find everyone wearing a Professionals tee-shirt and, if you’re lucky, a Bodie (or was it Doyle?) mop of curls.

At least, that was last week. This week they’re as likely to have donned a chambermaid’s outfit or full morning dress to plug the revival of Upstairs Downstairs – another classic from the Granada archives (well, LWT’s).

These are two of the shows GSB has chosen to spearhead its revival after what most people in the industry regard as a disappointing start last autumn. Despite being trumpeted at their launch as “The Magnificent Seven”, Granada Plus, the Granada Good Life channels and Granada Talk languish near the bottom of the cable and satellite ratings league.

But GSB’s viewing share is improving. In January, ratings were 25 per cent higher than December’s, and February has seen further improvement. To build on this, it has launched an ad campaign on radio and two ITV stations, centring on The Professionals and Upstairs Downstairs. Nissan’s revival of the Bodie and Doyle format is a bonus. Some of GSB’s ads are in the same breaks, with the line “You’ve seen the ads, you’ve seen the spoofs – now see the original.”

These two series were chosen not just because they were popular and easy to market. They also have that vital ingredient essential to building success in cable and satellite TV: sufficient episodes for them to be stripped across the week at the same time every day, without having to be repeated within the month.

Stuart Prebble, GSB’s chief executive, acknowledges this was not fully appreciated when it drew up its first schedules last autumn. “With so many channels, viewers aren’t going to keep separate schedules in their head. You have to let them know what to expect.”

Lis Howell, programme director of UK Living, puts it more strongly: “On cable and satellite, if you’ve got something good, you put it on every day to bludgeon it into people. They don’t want to be looking through listings.”

The second change GSB has introduced is a pattern of repeats. The Professionals is on every weekday, not just in peaktime at 10pm but also during the day, at 9am and 5pm. “When we started, we put our best material out when the biggest audience was available to watch, and that was right,” says Prebble. “But though we were competitive in peaktime, we weren’t doing as well during the day – and daytime is important. We had to give viewers more chances to see the top shows.”

Prebble says he identified the problem within the first few weeks. But with the long lead times needed for monthly listings magazines, new schedules decided in November couldn’t take effect until January.

GSB still has a long way to go before it fulfils the boasts of this high-profile alliance between two of broadcasting’s “big powers”.

One of its pre-launch press releases claimed: “This milestone in the cable and satellite industry is the result of a ground-breaking joint venture. The GSB channels will bring to cable homes what they have been seeking: established, high quality, British programming and more original programming than ever before.”

Given that some of the most popular BBC and Thames programmes were already firm fixtures on UK Gold and UK Living, many felt these claims were overblown. Prebble admits expectations were high and, as in any launch, they were played up. Now he must live with them. But he is confident that the venture is still on target to be cash-positive by year three, and profitable in year four.

He says some of its strongest programmes, such as Cracker and Prime Suspect, hadn’t completed their rights clearance when it launched. And he strongly defends the quality of GSB’s new programming, which occupies many hours on Granada Talk and the Good Life channels.

Other cable and satellite programmers claim their live items are too slow for the zap-happy multi-channel viewer. Prebble disagrees, saying those who are interested enough to watch a themed channel don’t need the quick-cutting techniques that ITV offers to hold its audience.

“Our problem is not that people are finding it dull and going elsewhere – but they’re not finding it at all,” he says.

Hence the grab-them-at-all-costs approach of the Professionals campaign and other stunts which can be promoted in listings magazines: Coronation Street evenings, featuring six episodes back-to-back; a whole day of gardening programmes; and “The Great Detectives”, featuring Granada/LWT’s stable of Poirot, Maigret and others.

GSB is putting into practice what other cable and satellite channels have known for some years. Its director of marketing Ann Cook, ex-TCC, revels in the promotional opportunities offered by its best-known series.

But a lesson has been learned here. If Granada and Sky, with all their experience, strong branding, high-rating programmes, financial backing and cross-promotion on Sky and ITV, can’t establish their new channels quickly, what chance is there for anyone else? And if they can’t do it when there are 40 channels, how will they do it when digital satellite TV offers five times as many?

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