Is Sky One Becoming the UK’s HBO?

Short answer: No.
I alluded a little the other day to this, but I think it’s a discussion worthy of its own topic anyway.
Every couple of years or so, Sky One gets a new controller – most recently Stuart Murphy who was appointed at the start of this year. Every new channel controller wants to make his or her mark, and that’s always been the case with Sky One – or indeed any other channel. More than once we’ve heard that a channel controller of Sky One wants to make it a bit more like HBO in the US.
The problem is that HBO is sold as a specific add-on in the US, whereas Sky One is usually sold in a basic entertainment pack in the UK. In the US they’d talk about the former being “premium cable” while the latter is “basic cable.” That means that the amount the channel receives per subscriber is much less than what HBO gets.
Let’s take a bit of a look at HBO. It’s certainly not like any UK channel. First of all, it’s actually a pacakge of channels with HBO being the main brand. Most of the secondary channels show repeats of the main channel’s fare, but as well as original dramas and comedy, HBO largely shows first run films (a la Sky Movies), plenty of boxing (sometimes on a pay-per-view basis), and sex “documentaries”. How much subscribers pay can vary by cable or satellite dish operator, and other packages subscribed to, but it’s clear that HBO is getting around $35 a month per subscriber for its offerings.
The key thing for HBO then, is to ensure that it has a package that’s attractive enough for people to keep subscribing to it on top of their “basic” cable bill.
When we think of HBO in the UK, we think of The Wire, The Sopranos, Entourage, Sex and the City, Generation Kill, True Blood and Curb Your Enthusiasm amongst others. But the reality is that those are (or were) all Sunday night shows. And they’re then repeated – a lot – during the week.
So last Sunday there was an airing of the film Marley and Me, followed by new epsiodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Bored To Death (coming sooner or later to a UK broadcaster I’ve no doubt). These are then repeated before another movie – the most recent Mummy film.
The rest of the week is just a succession of films with the only other new programme being an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher on Friday evening at 10pm. Otherwise, there are a few repeats of these shows scattered about.
Daytime and late night is the same. The only other HBO produced show that week is an episode of Taxicab Confessions and a “First Look” at a new film.
In effect, then, HBO is actually Sky Movies Premiere with a few original productions scattered within.
That’s quite interesting because next year HBO launches its next mega-production: The Pacific. From the producers of Band of Brothers, it’s a sort of sequel set in the Pacific rather than Europe. In the UK, Sky has bought the rights to it – no doubt at great cost – with the result that it’s going to be shown on Sky Movies and not Sky One. If Sky One was really the UK’s HBO, then surely it’d be there.
Now I’m not trying to knock Sky One too much. It picks up a good selection of US dramas – although they’re nearly all free-to-air shows in the US. And it makes the odd drama. While series like Dream Team and Mile High are long gone, it produces a Terry Pratchett two-parter each year, and made the well-regarded Skellig last year.
It’s also worth noting that HBO makes a series of well-regarded one-off dramas, often being co-productions with the BBC such as the forthcoming Emmy-winning Into The Storm about Churchill, a sequel of sorts to The Gathering Storm.
But Sky One has struggled with home-grown comedy. And it actually seems to be making more gameshows and talk shows than anything else right now. Last week we heard about a commission for a gameshow called Sell Me The Answer to run alongside the previously announced Angela and Friends (which sounds a bit like Loose Women and is probably hoping to be like ABC’s The View in the US).
Aside from the aforementioned big dramas, there was also The Take recently and the forthcoming Strike Back based on some Chris Ryan novels. These are obviously costly, but perhaps a little more ITV than HBO? However it’s unfair to judge the latter until we see it. They’ve also got a They Think It’s All Over -type comedy panel show, and to be fair, their Twelve Days of Christmas short films initiative sounds very interesting.
Otherwise it’s mostly studio gameshows. We’ve had Don’t Forget the Lyrics, Smarter than a Ten Year Old (with its bewildering array of presenters), and there’s the forthcoming Just Dance.
There are the odd documentaries including Ross Kemp’s surprisingly good series, Justin Lee Collins’ “In At The Deep End” style series recently (although he’s been snapped up by Five now), the curiously funded UK Border Force, and a forthcoming Bird Watching programme with Bill Bailey.
Yet when all’s said and done, Sky One is its own beast. It’s not HBO. It’s not BBC1 or ITV1. It needs to follow its own path.
And if proof be needed, today comes news that Sky has commissioned a couple of shows based around renowned “psychic” Derek Acorah performing a “Live Séance” with the recently deceased Michael Jackson. I’m not making this up. Sky One isn’t HBO. It’s Living TV.