Vanessa Jackson

Vanessa Jackson

Vanessa Jackson, Degree Leader in Television at Birmingham City University

On 5 February 1989 Sky Television launched its four-channel package. This year the company celebrates its 25th anniversary – and how far it has come in that time! The satellite market was slow to grow initially, and amid mounting losses Sky Television merged with British Satellite Broadcasting in 1990, to become British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB), the name it still holds today.

So what has the broadcaster achieved over the last quarter century? How has Sky helped change our viewing habits, and will TV ever be the same again?

I’m a recent convert to Sky; the package they offer of fibre optic broadband, telephone (the infrastructure supplied by BT), and satellite TV, with more channels than you can shake a stick at, is an alluring one. They are a canny lot at Sky – definitely a clever move to combine hardware and software.

Technological innovation, often led by Sky, has certainly changed the way we view TV. The Sky Plus Box has led the trend of self-scheduling – now, more than ever the power is with the viewer, we can pause live TV, rewind, fast-forward to miss out the commercial breaks, and decide what we want to view and when we want to view it. The importance of the physical schedule is ever diminishing.

Catch up TV has been successfully copied by Virgin, and services like BBC iPlayer, ITV Player and 4oD, carry out much the same function for the terrestrials. Ironically, other new technologies, like social media, and particularly Twitter, run counter to the self-scheduling trend. There is absolutely no point tweeting about a show you are watching a week after transmission! The ability to record series quickly and easily, changes the way we consume TV. We’ve seen the rise of box-set bingeing, the phenomenon of buying a DVD box-set, usually a drama series, and watching multiple episodes in an evening: now we can do the same thing, via our Sky Box or similar, without ever having to buy the box-set!

Sky continues to innovate technologically, they have worked closely with the BBC in developing interactive TV, and they more than any other UK broadcaster have invested in 3D technology, although the jury is still out as to whether this will have the impact they hope for. To my mind television is a two-dimensional medium, and I cannot see 3D becoming the norm, particularly for high volume, low cost TV, and factual output.

So, how else has Sky impacted on the industry? One of the largest cultural changes has been in the value of sports rights contracts, an area where Sky has invested massively – arguably resulting in the Premiership becoming the richest league in Europe. Sports rights are certainly valued more now than before Sky became a major player. This means that not only do Sky devote more hours of coverage to cricket and football than the terrestrials used to, but now terrestrial broadcasters also value their rights more highly, and subsequently often now provide more airtime to the sports where they do hold the rights. There are of course threats – BT Sport is actively competing with Sky and trying to lure away subscribers with cheaper deals.

One of the most exciting things about Sky, is their vision of the future. They are ambitious, and have big plans – plans to expand into areas of production, outside of News and Sport, where they have tended to concentrate, and into entertainment and drama. They are investing in new studios at their Isleworth headquarters, and are up-skilling their staff, in order to produce a broader programme slate. And that can only be good for a television industry that has seen contraction in recent years. Sky are one of the few broadcasters in a position to give staff contracts to workers, in an era where being freelance has become the norm.

This investment in the future is further demonstrated in the Sky Scholarship placement scheme: a partnership between Sky and the School of Media at Birmingham City University. Each year Sky selects three BCU Media students to complete a two-week placement down at Isleworth. The student who performs best is presented with a healthy cheque and the promise of future work. The relationship works extremely well for both organisations, and particularly for the students, and has led to a number of BCU Media graduates being currently employed by Sky.

So what has Sky done for us in the last 25 years? Well, they’ve changed the way we watch TV, they’ve changed what we watch on TV, and they will continue to change the industry going forwards. The way we consume television has certainly altered since Sky came along in 1989 – but the often heralded death knells of television as a medium seem a long way from being true, in large part due to producers and broadcasters like Sky!

ReThink Media Conference returns to Birmingham on 25 March 2014 and will provide inspiring insights, informed debate and potential solutions to the many challenges facing the fast evolving digital media sector.

Rethink Media is organised by Birmingham City University – a national leader in media education – and aims to support emerging media by showcasing new business models and the tools to improve content creation, maximise distribution and support audience engagement.

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Vanessa Jackson

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