Rupert Murdoch’s rise in the world of “news” is well known. His acquisition and promotion of right-wing rags and subsequent development of their televisual equivalent – Fox News – is legendary. Producing heavily biased low-brow reporting which no intelligent person would linger over for longer than it takes to wonder how he gets AWAY with it.
But less well known is his rise in ENTERTAINMENT television.
For that, we need to travel back to 1985. For it was then that he effectively took over Twentieth Century Fox – plus a slew of TV stations. The result was the first serious rival to the American Big Three – CBS, NBC and ABC.
However, progress was slow. He discovered starting a TV network from scratch was not easy. It would take years before the Fox Network (properly, the Fox Broadcasting Company) was a serious ratings-winner. And the method by which this was eventually achieved came from his BRITISH experience.
In 1989, Murdoch launched Sky broadcasting. It was one of two satellite broadcasting companies that won the U.K. franchise – the other being the ill-fated British Satellite Broadcasting. The latter soon encountered difficulties and was “merged” with Sky, to become British Sky Broadcasting. However, it was really a complete takeover.
Murdoch now effectively ruled British satellite TV – DiggerVision had arrived.
But he soon discovered that beginning a British network from scratch would be no easier than it had been in America. At first, his minions combed the British majors’ trash, taking burned-out formats, second-rate and aged “personalities” and forming them into something that LOOKED like a TV service.
However, the British public were not impressed and only Murdoch’s “news” media profits prevented him from going BANKRUPT. He needed HELP and he got it – but from an unexpected quarter.
In those days, there were four major TV networks in Britain. The most popular was ITV – a conglomeration of “independent” (their networked primetime schedules were almost identical) stations, funded by advertising.
Then there was the similarly-funded Channel Four – a Johnny-come-lately network who, after trying and failing to fill various niches in the market, discovered “alternative comedy”, cleaned it up and screened the results to a demographic that had been ignored for years – the 18-30s.
And BBCs One and Two.
These last were funded by an obligatory license-fee. Beeb One was the popular channel, while Beeb Two, which had started back in ’64, was more high-brow. And it was Beeb Two who unwittingly came to Murdoch’s rescue.
The thing was, a few years earlier, Beeb Two had bought the new Eighties Star Trek series, beginning with TNG, then DS9 and Voyager. Also, they had purchased other top American Fantasy/Sci-Fi shows. But the catch was they could not show them in primetime, as the ratings these shows would have garnered would have killed their own, license-fee-funded high-brow series.
Which would have been seriously embarrassing for Auntie.
So they contracted to run them as off-peak fillers, two years BEHIND America. This enabled them to get them CHEAP. The cost of syndicated programmes decreases DRAMATICALLY as they AGE, thus you can reduce their price by contracting to HOLD them for a couple of years before transmission. And since the price also relates directly to the size of the expected audience, an off-peak slot brings it down further.
But Auntie encountered a SNAG. The main slot for these programmes followed a slot for LIVE CRICKET. And having a tradition of flexibility – if said cricket over-ran, Auntie would BUMP Star Trek. This proved to be her undoing – and the SAVING of Murdoch’s TV aspirations.
You see, for decades, ITV and the Beeb had always avoided showing the same imported shows, therefore Beeb Two had seen no reason to insist on EXCLUSIVITY for the shows they had bought. And so SOMEONE at DiggerVision decided to CAPITALISE on this oversight.
During that summer, Beeb Two had bumped Star Trek OVER AND OVER AGAIN, due to the cricket over-runs. This had resulted in MILLIONS of Trekkies sitting waiting expectantly – while old men (and young men who were old-at-heart) wandered up and down a field occasionally throwing small, leather-covered balls around.
After twenty minutes of this farce – the cricket was only being watched by a relative HANDFUL of people – an announcer (they varied each week – this historian suspects they drew straws for the task) would apologise that Star Trek had been cancelled yet AGAIN. After a few weeks, you began to detect the EMBARRASSMENT in their voices.
So DiggerVision made a deal with Paramount and began STRIPPING (running at the same time, Monday to Friday) – in PRIMETIME – ALL of the Star Trek and other series being abused by Auntie, beginning with the pilots, then running straight through.
Thus every time one of Auntie’s announcers cleared their throat and said, “We apologise…” – the next day, thousands of Trekkies would go out and buy one of Murdoch’s dishes.
And despite having to endure ADVERTS (Beeb Two was license-fee-funded, remember) the Trekkies were overjoyed. Particularly when the daily-shown episodes OVERTOOK those being (occasionally) shown weekly on the Beeb. They did not even mind watching the earlier episodes again – after all, during the Seventies the Beeb had screened the original series about SEVENTEEN times.
But what they did not realize (or chose to ignore) was the fact that these new shows were LOSS-LEADERS – items that cost an unseemly amount, but bring in the customers. DiggerVision trumpeted these shows, while putting OLD, CHEAP imports into their schedules as FILLERS.
Even The Trek had cost less than might have been thought, since the deal had included the EARLIER shows as well, bringing the AVERAGE price DOWN. And just DUMPING the shows they had previously run (the majors’ leftovers) had saved DiggerVision even MORE money.
The psychology behind this new practise was simple. Just as people will often buy an album for one great track, viewers were happy to shell out big money for just a few top shows. Suddenly, Sky TV had become the television equivalent of the Premiere League – at which point, it pushed up its PRICES.
And it is a practise that DiggerVision has continued to this very day. A glance at Fox’s U.S. schedule will show that while they have a SMALL number of primo programmes – House, Bones, Fringe, 24, etc. – in their TWO hour primetime, the rest of their slots are filled with CHEAP GARBAGE.
It is the same here in S.E. Asia. In ’93, Murdoch bought the then-fledgling Hong Kong-based Star TV and proceeded to fill its schedules with a NOSE-GAY of prime, NEW American series – whilst padding out the rest of the slots with OLD, CHEAP stuff.
At the moment, here in Thailand, Star World is on the basic package – but how long will it be before it goes the way of Sky? Back in Britain, as soon as Sky had a fair-sized audience, Murdoch did a “re-package” – which meant all of its GOOD stuff suddenly cost a hell of a lot MORE.
One is reminded of DRUG-PUSHERS who virtually GIVE you their crap – but once you are hooked, up goes the PRICE!*
It is all about packaging. For centuries, dealers in EVERYTHING have put their good stuff on display, while tying it to a load of rubbish. We buy, seduced by the goodies, but it is not until we get the lot home that we realise we have been HAD.
Furthermore, we NEED those goodies. And as the Murdoch empire grows, so does its HOLD on said goodies. But what is the alternative? Tragically, it appears to be Hobson’s Choice. Some years ago, this journalist holidayed in Portugal and caught some of their televisual fare.
And he discovered their government had decided to keep DiggerVision OUT. But their home-grown programmes were CRAP (it is not easy to KILL the excitement of a franchise like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire – yet they had managed it).
Which meant that unless you could acquire some sort of “feed” from the U.K., there were NO British shows and your Hollywood programmes consisted of once-a-week showings of…
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* UPDATE! Eventually, Digger DID push up his price here – by making Star World available only to people on the local SP’s Platinum package (they have Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze – except they call the Bronze package the Knowledge package, to make the subscribers feel BETTER about themselves).
But then he over-reached himself. He dumped the better, more expensive shows on the network – and replaced them with cheap, talent-free reality shows (some made by his company). This proved to be a MISTAKE, as said local SP had recently LOST the BBC’s “entertainment” channel (also only available on Platinum).
This fiasco is believed to have come about when the value of the Pound dropped – but Auntie’s price did NOT. And given her programmes were always two years old – the local SP decided this was not on.
Therefore, they dumped Auntie and replaced her with a channel that specialised in REPEATS – while their bullsh*t… sorry – PUBLICITY department put out a statement saying the change was in response to viewers’ preferences.
This was immediately shown to be BOGUS – when customers DOWNGRADED their packages by the THOUSAND. And it meant that now, only DiggerVision was holding the fort as far as Platinum customers were concerned.
Which meant that when Digger dropped 30 Rock, Late Night With David Letterman and various other goodies (and with Monk having just FINISHED its run) and replaced them with sundry versions of …Next Top Model – most of the remaining Platinum customers ALSO down-graded (including THIS reporter).
But Digger is fighting back. Here in The Land Of Smiles, he has now launched (in a somewhat half-arsed fashion) FOX TV – as a sort of sister-channel to Star World.
Except rather than employing his usual device of scheduling just a few loss-leaders, padded out with crap – this channel ONLY has the loss-leaders – but repeated MANY times. And the best of them are already available here, on other channels.
Nevertheless, if against all odds the channel IS successful – how long will it be before it too only becomes available on Platinum?
This chronicler will keep you posted…