Sky’s gazumping is killing popular drama imports – TV with no viewers isn’t TV at all

Sky’s latest deal with US cable network Showtime is another example of how it buys up seasons of non-UK programmes popular with UK audiences on free-to-air channels.

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Sky has recently announced a deal with US cable network Showtime. Showtime, in case you’re losing track of which American producer does what, is the one that makes Homeland. It also co-produces (with and for Sky) Penny Dreadful and Episodes for BBC Two. Earlier Showtime productions include The Tudors, and American-set remakes of Channel 4 series like Queer as Folk and Shameless.

All of Showtime’s new programming, including the Twin Peaks revival, will air exclusively on Sky Atlantic, in an arrangement seemingly modelled on Sky’s longstanding deal with HBO (the makers of Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones).

This is a shame. It means that, as with HBO’s programming, Showtime’s is now effectively prevented from reaching a substantial audience in the UK.

When Sky’s deal for American Movie Classics' Mad Men kicked in between series, the programme lost three quarters of its UK audience as it switched from BBC Four to Sky Atlantic. By season six, Mad Men was pulling in 58,000 viewers. Those are the numbers you’d expect for a channel rotating listlessly through music videos in the afternoon.

It was later estimated that, given the high cost of acquiring Mad Men versus the number of people watching it, each viewer was costing Sky around £5 an episode.

Mad Men is an example of a decades-long pattern of Sky’s gazumping in the television import market, buying up the later seasons of non-UK television programmes that had already proved themselves popular with UK audiences on free-to-air channels. Star Trek: The Next Generation (series one to three on BBC Two, series four to seven on Sky One or Sky Movies) is probably the earliest example. Friends is the most notable.  

Friends, bought by Channel 4 before it became a phenomenon in the US, skipped off to Sky for its fourth to sixth series. (Those Friends showings are, 20 years on, Sky’s best ever ratings for non-sport programming.)

When Channel 4 subjected Sky to a taste of its own medicine, beating it in a bidding war for Friends’ seventh to final series, Elisabeth Murdoch claimed Sky let Channel 4 win, having lost interest in the programme.

This was because Sky was aware, thanks to insider information, that two of the cast were about to leave, rendering the series compromised. (This, of course, is something that never happened.)

But what about Game of Thrones? That’s a series that has only ever aired on Sky and furthermore one that everyone watches, right?  Well, it’s certainly only ever aired on Sky. It started after Sky’s deal with HBO, and so was never available for other UK broadcasters to consider. Whether Sky, with little record of picking out imports that then become popular on their own would have chosen it without it being part of a package they’d already bought is an interesting question.

It’s also true that Game of Thrones is a big hit for Sky Atlantic (and for Sky as a whole) in that it gets around 1.5m viewers. This is a much better return on its investment than Mad Men’s 58,000, being nearly 30 times as many pairs of eyeballs.

Yet in context, that number isn’t impressive. 1.5m is under half the viewers garnered by the average episode of University Challenge. BBC Two’s repeats of Dad’s Army routinely get between 100,000 and 1m more viewers than that.

Last month, ITV’s Jekyll and Hyde series was cancelled for averaging above Game of Thrones best ever individual UK rating. The first episode of Jekyll and Hyde received 4.3m viewers – no drama or comedy of Sky has ever achieved that.

Game of Thrones’ audience, taking in file-sharing and people who buy DVDs/Blu-rays, may be significantly greater than that, but those people aren’t watching it on Sky Atlantic, they’re seeking it through alternative routes because it’s on Sky Atlantic.

Things that are squirreled away on Sky do not reach substantial numbers. It's a sort of cargo cult version of television; it has critics, programming and advertising but no actual audience.

This is even truer of Sky’s original productions. The aforementioned Penny Dreadful gets around 350,000 viewers. Then there’s Fortitude. The Times declared – and it is proudly displayed on the front of the Blu-ray and DVD of the series – that Fortitude, a passable co-production with an expensive cast, was “one of the most anticipated TV shows of the year”.  If that was so, it wouldn’t have averaged around a million viewers an episode or about as many people as an average Channel 4 afternoon repeat of an ancient episode of The Simpsons gets.

Something like New Tricks, Endeavour, Silent Witness or Luther can be relied upon to get five, six or eight times those viewers. Call the Midwife gets ten times that, and Sherlock 11 or 12.

Yet, with the possible exception of Sherlock, these series do not generate much media excitement or comment, despite serving a vastly larger audience than any series on Sky could dream of. British newspaper coverage of television often feels like looking down the wrong end of a telescope. It’s the entertainment equivalent of the Westminster bubble.

Bertolt Brecht, unlikely to have been a fan of BSkyB, argued that art without an audience could still have intrinsic artistic value, but that an audience without a piece of art is people sitting in an empty room staring at nothing. It’s a strong argument.

That, though, just makes these programmes not reaching a UK audience rather sad. You have to wonder if these US broadcasters and production houses are aware that they are essentially “delivering content” to Brecht’s empty room and it would be the deepest of ironies to attempt to argue “art for art’s sake” about the programming of as unapologetically commercial an organisation as BSkyB.

Television is a mass medium, and the word literally means “far seeing”. Television without an audience is television no one sees. Television without an audience isn’t really television at all.

James Cooray Smith is freelance writer specialising in TV and film history.