Could 2011 be the year when Rachel Cooke finally subscribes to Sky?
Regular readers of this column will not be surprised to hear that I am a great maker of New Year's resolutions. My Protestant streak, as wide as the Humber, continually compels me to compile long lists of Things I Must Do, especially in January. This year, however, I've decided to focus. I will be making no unrealistic promises to myself about running, eating or drinking. Nor will I be vowing to take fewer taxis. No, in 2011, I would just like to achieve a little peace of mind every time I sit down in front of the television. To Sky, or not to Sky? That is the question, and I hope to answer it some time before 1 February.
I love television and I love writing about it, but I'm wary, too. I want to remain the boss of my telly, a feeling that accounts not only for the diminutive size of my set - visitors openly snigger at my tiny TV - but also for the absence of any subscriptions in my name to satellite or cable. When it comes to television, choice, I think, can be a peculiarly paralysing thing. Arriving in yet another American hotel room late at night, my instinct is always to switch the television on. What happens next is as inevitable as my raid on the minibar Gummi Bears: I click through every channel, ascertain that absolutely nothing is on, then begin the process all over again, just in case. This can go on for hours.
Clearly, in the case of Sky, there are also other considerations. You will have your own views about Rupert Murdoch, his quest for global domination and his effect on British culture thus far - and I'd guess that mine are fairly similar (though I can't be too much of a hypocrite about this: I worked at the Sunday Times for seven years). But, for me, a more pertinent way of thinking about Sky has to do with money - and I don't just mean the minimum £19 a month it costs to subscribe.
Murdoch can say what he likes about the BBC, but there is no getting away from the fact that, on the back of a revenue of £4.6bn, it generates amazing and peerless original content (a colour licence costs £145.50, the equivalent of 40p a day; I would pay this for Radio 4 alone). By contrast, BSkyB, which has £5.9bn revenue, generates sod all. (Sky One's commissioning editor for drama reputedly has £20m to spend on original programming over the next three years, but my hunch is that it will continue to make only adaptions of bestselling airport novels such as Martina Cole's The Take; no one should think it's about to turn into HBO.)
So why am I even considering a subscription? Well, it started with Mad Men, which Sky has now bought for the rest of its television life. If I want to see series four, I will either have to get Sky, or must avoid anything or anyone who mentions it until the box set appears. Grim. Then there's cricket. I don't know when the ECB will come to its senses and ensure that cricket can, beyond one late-night programme of highlights on ITV4, be seen on terrestrial television (this seems to me to be crucial for the sport's future). In the meantime, it's horrible to be in the middle of such an exciting Ashes series but have access only to Test Match Special (and I write as someone who adores TMS).
Finally, there is Sky Arts. At a party, I met James Hunt, head of programming at Sky's arts channels. He seemed decent and clever, and the speech he gave me about all the things he's pulling off very quietly on a tiny percentage of the BBC's budget was extremely effective.
I went home and googled, and he was right - there is some good, highbrow stuff on Sky Arts. If you like opera, for instance, Sky would seem like a sound investment (it regularly screens live performances). And the channel's recent series of Chekhov shorts starring Steve Coogan and Johnny Vegas was inspired by the success of its Playhouse: Live season, which in turn featured new work by playwrights such as Mark Ravenhill and Frank McGuinness.
People can moan all they like about Sky's wider motives, but it has just won an award for advancing the relationship between business and the arts. It would be churlish to knock its sponsorship of the arts in the UK, or fail to acknowledge that, in gathering the crumbs left behind by bigger beasts, it can be less fixatedly metropolitan in its programming (a recent show went behind the scenes at the Northern Art Prize in Leeds). Does all this sound convincing? I know, it's really myself that I'm trying to convince, isn't it? I'll let you know what I decide.