Will Sky Atlantic be a dealbreaker for UPC customers?
It sounds like an airline chasing lost business class custom, but anyone who has spotted the prominent and kind of thrilling advertising campaign for Sky Atlantic will be under no illusions. Against a night-time New York skyline, the billboards declare “let the stories begin”.
On February 1st, the Sky Atlantic channel will launch with the pilot of HBO’s Prohibition-era gangsterfest Boardwalk Empire, starring Steve Buscemi and directed by Martin Scorsese. Other programming rights seized by the new Murdoch revenue vehicle include Treme (the New Orleans-based series by David “The Wire” Simon), the forthcoming fifth series of Mad Men and the convoluted-sounding home-commissioned six-parter Hit and Miss, produced by Paul Abbott.
The pedigree of the line up and initial feedback on the shows that have already aired in the US suggests that Sky Atlantic will be more hit than miss – or, as the billboard tagline phrases it, the channel will “bring iconic television to Ireland”. This suggests, of course, that without the thoughtful, altruistic intervention of subscriber-seeking BSkyB, Irish viewers would never get the opportunity to lay eyes on the best drama and comedy that HBO, Showtime and AMC have to offer, rather than enduring the usual process whereby we twitch a bit, envious of our American cousins, until they eventually end up on free-to-air channels at a later than necessary hour.
Sky Atlantic will be free to all Sky subscribers until the end of August, at which point the channel will be part of the Variety Pack, a €2 per month add-on to the basic €23 per month package. (For new sightings of Jon Hamm, Mad Men‘s Don Draper, in glorious high definition, you will need to pay €15 extra a month for the HD Pack.) That’s good news for Sky’s 600,000-plus Irish subscribers, assuming they haven’t just signed on purely to be amused by Jeff Stelling and his posse of shouty pitchside reporters.
Access to Sky Atlantic for the 375,000 digital television subscribers to UPC Ireland, on the other hand, has yet to be confirmed. Indeed, when I contacted UPC earlier this week, its product team said this: “It is under review with the channel provider. Until discussions conclude, we’re not in a position to comment any further.”
Aaagghhh. (You can guess which company has my custom.) A last minute carriage deal is still possible and far from unprecedented. On the other hand, Sky could choose to delay or restrict access to other pay-TV providers in order to further differentiate its offering, in much the same way as it does with the HD versions of its sports channels. In any case, even “iconic” dramas are unlikely, by themselves, to spark an exodus from UPC to Sky, if only because drama fans looking to score cool points by watching them before everyone else will already be in the habit of downloading the shows as soon as they are broadcast in the US. Almost everyone else who cares will reluctantly wait for the box set – an attitude that doesn’t tend to work so well when it comes to live football.
What Sky Atlantic does do, however, is give BSkyB’s pay TV products a talking point; a hook for its flashy ad campaign, which may help it grab any growth in the market before UPC’s Borg-like contact centres can get to it. UPC’s approach to adding customers – and it is still adding them – seems to largely eschew exclusive content in favour of sucking people in under their bundling deals: buy this 100 MB broadband, for which we’ve gone to all the trouble of digging holes in the ground, and take our phone and Sky-facsimile television products while you’re at it.
I won’t leave UPC for Sky if it can’t negotiate a deal on Sky Atlantic, but that feeling of missing out on a rich cultural glut will leave me hostile – partly towards UPC, but mostly towards BSkyB for causing all the grief in the first place. Personally, I’ve always quite liked watching Mad Men on elegant, commercial-free BBC 4. Sky’s world domination plans have scuppered that.