The outcry over Sky’s introduction of pay-per-view charges for the fight
between Frank Bruno and Mike Tyson speaks volumes about the state of
the British television market. For months it has been clear Sky was
going to flex its technological muscles, and use the event on 17 March
as our first ever pay-per-view experiment.
But the broadcaster was clearly unprepared for the scale of opposition
it has provoked by asking boxing fans, who already subscribe monthly to
Sky, to pay an extra pounds 9.95 (rising to pounds 14.95 for late
bookers) for home ‘ringside’ tickets. For once the people frothing at
the mouth are not politicians or crusty old cricket -loving peers, but
ordinary Sky viewers, who are howling about being double charged.
It is all very well for Sky’s David Elstein to point out that it was the
promoters and not Sky who decreed the fight should be available only as
a pay-per-view event: that if Sky had not screened it fans would have
been forced to go to cinemas in the middle of the night or make do with
a recording. Nor is the argument that pounds 9.95 is a bargain compared
with pounds 34 charged to American viewers likely to defuse things.
But this spat may illustrate something more profound about the UK
marketplace - that Sky has lost touch with its audience. It is starting
to frighten rather than serve it. To do this, at the same time that
political pressure is mounting to curb the company’s power, seems very
unwise. For years commentators (like me) and operators have glibly and
unquestioningly assumed that pay-per-view was the coming thing,
especially since British culture tends to ape all things American.
But perhaps we won’t go all the way. What we are now witnessing, at the
very least, is a failure of marketing. The British public has not been
prepared for this new form of market, either by Sky or the owners of
such events, and feels exploited. Earlier this week I was a delegate at
the Financial Times new media conference with businessmen at the cutting
edge of satellite and cable. What became clear was that, though the
British satellite/cable market is one of the most sophisticated and
developed in Europe, scant attention has been paid to customers. This is
why cable companies are launching belatedly this week a major marketing
campaign. Several key players remarked that the amount of viewing in
cable/satellite homes devoted to the new channels remained low because
so little attention and money was spent on making new programmes.
Sky should have launched pay-per-view with a tempting special event, say
a concert, which it would not normally screen. That way it might have
persuaded us that pay-per-view was a genuine new useful offering, not
greed dressed up as service.