You’d have to pretty unobservant not to know that Sky are launching a new TV channel this week, called Sky Atlantic. It’s been very heavily promoted through a poster campaign and TV ad featuring the legendary Dustin Hoffman talking about the magic of ‘stories’. Those of us who subscribe to a rival service (in my case Virgin Media) seem to have been subjected to it almost every ad break and there’s a pretty obvious reason for that.
Sky Atlantic is another huge anti-competitive move by Rupert Murdoch and his minions, who have bought up most of the best American TV shows (basically everything ever made by HBO) and placed them all on a channel only available to their own subscribers. It’s a pretty cynical move designed to force people to switch to see these programmes, but there’s also a kind of brave and noble sentiment behind it. A slightly naive one too.
It seems to be based on the Field Of Dreams maxim that ‘if you build it, they will come’. So, if Sky Atlantic shows all of the best TV programmes around, people will watch it. But that doesn’t necessarily ring true. One of the prize scoops for the new channel was stealing Mad Men away from the BBC, but no matter how many people talk about Don Draper et al, the ratings on BBC Four were never very impressive, so aren’t likely to improve much on an ‘exclusive’ channel for fifth season (which hasn’t even been made yet, no matter how much Sky Atlantic are plugging it).
The same can be said for the classic shows being rerun from the start, like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Battlestar Galactica. None of them were particularly ratings winners, because the masses generally don’t want to watch stuff like that. They want to watch Eastenders and The X-Factor. Sky’s hope is that their ability to schedule these shows properly (rather than the shoddy treatment they all received on regular channels when they were first shown) will help change that, but all of them are probably going to remain box-set favourites rather than the kind of shows that will get big ratings for Sky Atlantic
The big launch show is Boardwalk Empire, which begins on Tuesday night with an opening episode directed by Martin Scorsese and comes with Sopranos alumni Terence Winter (producer) and Steve Buscemi (star). In America, it earned huge critical acclaim but mediocre ratings and there’s no reason to assume any different over here. It’s a fantastic programme, stylish, violent, sexy, funny and intelligent, but like its godfather (pun intended) show, it moves at a pace that will infuriate anyone not willing to let a good story be told over the course of a season rather than an individual episode.
I’ve been lucky enough to watch the whole series and it’s well worth sticking with if you are a fan of quality HBO drama. It will always suffer in comparison to The Sopranos, but in my opinion, everything does. On its own merits, Boardwalk Empire is another bona fide classic from the studio that has already given us so very many incredible shows, and it’s great to see Buscemi given the chance to be lead in something like this. But it won’t be for everyone and that is the risk of Sky Atlantic.
Of course, the main criticism you could level at this new channel is that the £150m spent on buying up HBO’s entire output could have been spent as part of a big push to create an English version of it. Sky have started to put some time and money into original programming over the last five years, but not nearly enough to create anything to compete with something like Boardwalk Empire. If Sky Atlantic is a sign that they have given up on homegrown TV, that would be a shame, because they are in a position to create something special with the right efforts and talent.
- HBO Series ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Gets The Green Light For A Third Season (dishtvblog.com)
- Tonight’s Return of Mad Men on Sky Atlantic HD Will Only Show Ads From the ’60s (gizmodo.co.uk)
- Mad Men series 5 opener attracts nearly 100,000 (guardian.co.uk)