For the past 12 years, customers of UK barber shops have had to vie with Sky Sports News for the sole attention of those tending to their grooming needs. A constant presence on the ubiquitous corner-mounted TVs in such establishments, the channel has provided a comforting distraction.
While this distraction may occasionally have been troubling for customers during the cut-throat-razor-around-the-ears moments, at least it served to keep stilted chat about holidays and 'weekend requirements' to a minimum.
However, as of next week, these barber shops and other venues that offer their staff and customers access to Freeview will fall silent. Either that or their punters will be exposed to re-runs of the late Keith Floyd's cookery shows, or repeats of the now-cancelled Brainiac: Science Abuse. This is because from 23 August, Sky Sports News will be hidden behind Rupert Murdoch's growing paywall, and replaced on Freeview with a time-shifted version of Sky 3.
For Sky, the switch is an apparently sensible, if belated one. The popularity of Sky Sports News seems to have taken the broadcaster by surprise. Created mainly as a marketing tool for its premium sports channels, it now regularly draws bigger audiences than Sky News.
Sky had clearly underestimated the appetite of viewers for details of the latest debilitating injuries or player transfer news - football's 'deadline days', for example, bring a marked spike in audience. This, coupled with its presence on the Freeview platform, made the channel a particularly attractive destination for advertisers. Moreover, they got a good deal, because many viewers were watching the channel out of home and were, consequently, excluded from BARB's audience figures.
Given the demand for Sky Sports News, then, it is small wonder that Sky believes people will pay for the privilege of continuing to view it, particularly once the channel is relaunched in HD. There remains, however, the question of what this will mean for advertisers.
Any development that makes it more difficult and more expensive to reach a predominantly young, male demographic is a decidedly 'bad thing'. Yet, on further reflection, it could be argued that it has opened up an opportunity for a broadcaster with suitably deep pockets - the Sky Sports News operation employs 140 staff - and the ambition to take up the mantle of a Freeview channel dedicated to sports news.
One candidate that springs readily to mind is Channel 5 owner Richard Desmond. He has cleared out most of the staff that he inherited from RTL and now plans to integrate the operation into the main offices of his Northern & Shell group, alongside Express Newspapers. He has also pledged to increase the amount spent on screen.
Might it be an idea for him to scrap Fiver or Five USA and use the gap left to launch his own free alternative to Sky Sports News? After all, the Daily Express has a team of sports journalists who could also provide broadcast content, and few would mourn the passing of Channel 5's digital sister channels.
As well as showing that integrated newsrooms really can work and providing programming for an audience that clearly wants it, this would create an attractive and unique platform for advertisers - and, to be honest, that's not something you can say about the rest of Desmond's media empire.
It would also help him to ingratiate himself with Ofcom and, given that he is so keen to cross-promote so much of his content on multiple platforms, getting in with the regulator might not be such a bad strategy. Who knows, it might even mean he need never pay for a trim and a hot-towel shave again.
- Jeremy Lee is associate editor of Marketing. Read his blog at marketingmagazine.co.uk
30 SECONDS ON ... SKY SPORTS NEWS
- Sky Sports News (SSN) began broadcasting on 1 October 1998, the launch date of BSkyB's digital satellite service. It was BSkyB's first digital-only channel.
- In April 2000 the channel was relaunched as Sky Sports.com TV, to tie in to the launch of the skysports.com website. However, due to its mainstream success, it reverted to its original name in July 2001.
- SSN focuses predominantly on football (especially during the August-May season), but reports on a wide range of sports, including those to which Sky does not possess broadcasting rights, such as Formula One and baseball.
- One of the key fixtures in its weekly listings is Gillette Soccer Saturday, hosted by Jeff Stelling, which is broadcast for up to six hours from noon on Saturdays during the football season.
- In June, Sky launched Sky Sports News Radio. The online station currently broadcasts live from 8.00am to 6.00pm but will expand to a 24-hour operation from 23 August.
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk