Sky's the limit

Television - Andrew Billen looks at how Sky plans to make more friends

In the past month, two mini-earthquakes (not many hurt, yet) have hit Sky One. The first eruption was in January when the debut of the new series of Friends won 2.5 million viewers, an unheard of audience for satellite. The second came on 15 February, when it broadcast the first episode of The Strangerers, its first ever original British sitcom.

We don't yet know the ratings, but Sky is desperately hoping that they are healthy. Friends may have proved there is a big audience ready to tune in to Sky, but for Murdoch's executives it was a bitter-sweet epiphany, as Channel 4 recently outbid them for exclusive rights to the next series (and the next season of ER, too). With no American replacements in sight, out of necessity Sky One must become a species of British TV, and quickly.

Politically this is a good move, because it will silence the usual carping that Sky does nothing to help television production in this country. The criticism has always been exaggerated. From the start, Sky One has had its own programmes, from Derek Jameson's old chat show to the undistinguished mini-series commissioned by David Elstein. But since the arrival of James Baker as controller three years ago, original commissions have increased year by year. There have been occasional hits, although not in comedy and rarely in drama. As a rule of thumb, Sky does well when it invents something new, such as Ibiza Uncovered, and fails when it tries to compete with ITV, as it did with Freddie Star's Beat The Crusher last year. Doing well currently are Prickly Heat and The Villa, which blend the genres of hidden-camera and dating game. That said, on St Valentine's Day, Sky One showed four hours of Friends and The Simpsons, which smacked of dependency.

So what of The Strangerers, the first of Sky's "premier products"? Rob Grant's script has been hanging around for years, but it could have been written for Sky. Its sci-fi premise appeals to Sky's core Trekkies and X-Filiacs, while addressing the wider comedy audience that Friends has proved exists. As the writer of Red Dwarf, Grant has a pedigree record in this cross-genre.

The Strangerers is not in The League of Gentlemen's league, but it is an attractive, funny show nevertheless, and at a cost of nearly £3 million for the series, expectations are running high. "It's a big show. The question is, will people come to it?" admitted Mark Freeland, the head of Sky Productions, when he rang me from a comedy arts festival in Aspen. "It is going to be choppy waters for the next few years, but if we can find a home-grown hit, it will be a brave new world." In this brave new world, half of Sky One's £65-million annual budget will be spent on original production, and for that the Supervisor, as the Strangerers would call Elizabeth Murdoch, will expect a bigger than cult following for its forthcoming comedies: a David Baddiel sitcom and a "very rude" 10pm Harry Enfield show. She'll also be looking for a returning one-hour drama series, her best hope being The Stretch, which Sky will promote to EastEnders fans as an Angie and Den unleashed.

All of the pay-per-view specials that were going to be shown on Sky Premier have now been co-opted for Sky One's autumn push - a break for viewers who are always being pulled up by the ankles and shaken for loose change by Sky's various box offices, but a sure sign that Sky sees this, as Freeland says, as "make or break, boom or bust" time. We must wish, for the sake of indigenous producers, that Sky keeps its nerve, as it did when it persevered with its tardily successful soccer soap, Dream Team. But let's keep some perspective on Sky's largesse: Sky is about to spend not £33 million but £250 million on its Internet sites next year.

The other troubling aspect is that these new programmes are not designed for you or me. Channel 4's forthcoming subscription digital channel E-4, where the new season of ER and Friends will first be seen, is, says Freeland, "a real threat that has made us focus on our demographic". Ominously, this demographic is 16-34 year olds in social classes C and D. Start praying for The West Wing, which I reviewed enthusiastically last week. As one of the Strangerers explained on Tuesday: "We will be observed by low- credibility beings of minuscule intelligence." Yet aren't we all, sometimes, low-credibility beings of minuscule intelligence?

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Just wait for the gold rush to end