Sky's the limit

UK-based channel Sky News has revealed plans for a major editorial and commercial push into the Middle East.
Interviews, Broadcast Business
Interviews, Broadcast Business

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UK-based channel Sky News has revealed plans for a major editorial and commercial push into the Middle East.

John Parnell spoke to foreign affairs editor Tim Marshall and head of news John Ryley about the region's increasing ability to generate revenues, as well as stories.

Sky News prides itself on its breaking news and is very proud of its record in this field.

The broadcaster's website claims the channel was first with the news of Princess Diana's death and that of Slobodan Milosevic as well being the first to despatch senior correspondents to the scene of the Asian tsunami.

"We're a national broadcaster not a state broadcaster. Our role is not to lecture or to educate, we are a breaking news service. My belief is that Sky News is borne out of a tradition that marries democracy, freedom of speech and the journalistic pursuitof truth. - John Ryley, Head of news, Sky News"

Now the channel is looking to boost its commercial and editorial presence in the Middle East and create a few firsts of its own in the region.

"Over the last few years the geopolitical significance of this region has increased significantly partly because of the repercussions of the Iraq war and partly because of what is happening in Afghanistan," says John Ryley, head of Sky News.

As an international news channel it is important that we reflect more on what is happening in this region than we had previously, whether it's economic, financial, political or strife.

Currently carried in the Middle East on Star TV, part of the Murdoch empire, the Sky News format is fundamentally different to many of its competitors in that it sends the same content internationally regardless of location with no regionally specific programming.

"I believe this is the great advantage of Sky News and something that sets us apart from many of the other international news channels. We are a breaking news service - we don't attempt to tailor our programming to a specific region," claims Ryley.

While the broadcaster does offer several advertiser opt-outs per region, the Middle East is currently tied to the European service offering.

There are no plans at present to offer a separate dedicated alternative for Middle East-based advertising clients, despite the continuing growth in ad spend across the region.

The channel's presenters and on-camera reporters also adopt a very laid-back style which Ryley claims is another part of the channel's attempts to differentiate itself from its rivals.

"We currently operate a bureau in Jerusalem and we employ a network of stringers across the Middle East, although this presence is set to expand.

"If we open a bureau in Dubai or elsewhere in the region it would not only be to gather news - we also look to interview the key protagonists, the people involved in the stories.

"It's not just about having a producer, a cameraman and a correspondent available. It's about getting the right interviews to reflect all the different shades of opinion. We would look to do this here, just as we do from our other bureaus," says Ryley.

He adds that Sky is also conscious of the fact that any expansion of its Middle East-based coverage will do its ratings in the region, across all these platforms, no harm at all.

"I'd be a foolish head of news if I didn't try to consistently attract new viewers and customers. We are part of BSkyB, a FTSE 100 company. We are a commercial entity, a business, we don't get a licence fee from the public.

There are a lot of very affluent people in the Middle East and I think the market is there for the taking," says Ryley.

And as a commercial entity, Sky is also well aware of its own value with plans for the British version of the channel to come off the UK freeview platform in July and become a pay TV channel, a move which has led to some advertisers demanding a partial refund.

"We believe we have a quality product and people should pay for it," Ryley argues. "The hole in that argument is that the content is free and available to view on the web. But there are those who argue that the web is an imperfect media platform whose potential is yet to be fully realised.

News hound

John Ryley was educated at Durham University and the Wharton School of Management and began his career in television news as a graduate news trainee at the BBC, before working on the flagship BBC Nine O'clock News.

He joined ITN in 1990 and went on to become assistant programme editor on its News at Ten programme.

He joined Sky News in 1995 and has since pioneered innovative, live coverage of breaking news and events.

He produced Sky's Royal Television Society (RTS) award-winning coverage of Diana, Princess of Wales' funeral in 1997 and as executive editor took a leading role in Sky's coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, for which the channel won its first BAFTA award.

In August 2002, he was responsible for devoting the channel's output to coverage of the Soham murders, for which it won a second BAFTA and an RTS award.
 

Sky News is currently the fastest growing news website in Europe and Ryley reveals that the site will undergo a significant revamp this month that will be far from superficial.

"We have committed additional resources to beefing up the website over the past 18 months. The next round of improvements will make it even easier for visitors to find as much information as they require about a particular story.

For example, say someone wants to learn more about the situation in Zimbabwe.

"We believe we have a quality product and people should pay for it. The hole in that argument is that the content is free and available to view on the web. But there are those who would argue that the web is an imperfect media platform whose potential is yet to be fully realised. - John Ryley Head of news, Sky News"

We will offer them access to video news reports, the latest wire copy, our Africa correspondent's blog - all of which is aggregated - so they don't have to navigate round different parts of the site. It is all laid out on one page for them.

The website is currently arranged by medium with written reports, video, pictures and blogs segregated. The new architecture will encourage a visitor reading about a particular subject to click on various multimedia enhancements, generating additional page impressions.

Sky News' foreign affairs editor Tim Marshall boasts an extensive amount of TV reporting experience across the globe particularly in the Middle East.

Marshall says he can no longer really consider himself a TV journalist as he finds himself writing for the website, maintaining a blog and even on Sky News radio, a reflection of the multimedia nature of the channel and the future of the industry.

Ryley is also well aware of the commercial opportunities presented by the tech-savvy markets of the Middle East with mobile-based services a potentially strong revenue driver.

"We currently operate a streaming service to mobiles but to be honest it doesn't look particularly classy. We are planning to invest in some gadgetry to bring the presentation in line with the channel," admits Ryley.

Independent market research recently published in the UK found that Sky outperforms fellow broadcasters in terms of mobile internet usage, with its Sky News and Sky Sports News breaking news services leading the charge.

The study was completed in Oxford, a reasonably small town dominated by its prestigious university. As Ryley points out the results of the survey were therefore slightly skewed towards a younger population.

This finding could potentially prove a boon if translated to the Middle East region, which boasts one of the world's youngest and most-affluent consumer markets. Ryley is confident that Sky News' strategy will indeed snare new viewers in the Middle East.

"There are a lot of people here that are interested in international news, people that would also be interested in a British take on international news," he says whilst pointing out that this is not the same thing as the British government's take.

"We're a national broadcaster not a state broadcaster. Our role is not to lecture or to educate, we are a breaking news service.

"My belief is that Sky News is borne out of a tradition that marries democracy, freedom of speech and the journalistic pursuit of truth. Another TV organisation in Dubai has expressed an interest in coming to see how we approach rolling 24 hour news coverage.

They have realised that our more informal, direct approach has enormous appeal. The idea of a presenter sitting down and reading tablets of stone out to you is pretty old fashioned these days," he adds.

Transforming the media landscape

Sky offers an SMS news alert service which sends either one or two messages per day to subscribers, with a maximum charge per day of around US$0.5. The broadcaster estimates that its daily global audience is around 120 million viewers.

In theory, if just one in 500 of those signed up for the SMS alerts service, it would generate more than $100,000 per day.

Exploiting advances in production, distribution and communication technologies to create more innovative and varied content distribution and more engaging presentation and news delivery is one area where Sky is keen to lead the way.

"There are two schools of thought," says Marshall. "One is that we are being trapped by technology and TV journalism is worse for it. I completely disagree with that. I think we are liberated by new technologies.

A great example was when we took satellite phones on the backs of donkeys across a river in Afghanistan in 2001, which enabled us to get our signal out. There is no way we could have gone live from there without that technology," recalls Marshall.

"So much technology is now crammed into a regular laptop computer that a live news crew requires much less equipment to get the job done. Four of us went to Tehran for the Iranian election and between us we only had 16 pieces of luggage. For a TV crew of four to go live with so little kit is quite liberating."

Marshall argues that the development of cheaper video production tools is transforming the mass media landscape.

"We are convinced that video is the new media battleground," he claims.

"This battle extends to newspapers, magazines, as well as TV channels, all of which are looking to source the best footage.

"Citizen journalism can add something to the output of the channel. The 7/7 bombings in London, produced some extremely dramatic footage from mobile phones of people jumping off trains and escaping via tube tunnels.

That footage would not exist otherwise and it really helped to convey the full horror of the story as it developed," Marshall adds.
 

 

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