New Dawn for TV

IF A CERTAIN beer manufacturer did TV channels, they’d probably come up with something like Sky Atlantic.

Pulling the strings behind the scenes you’d have geniuses such as Martin Scorsese and The Wire creator, David Simon, while out front a cast of the best TV actors on the planet would be joined by the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Kate Winslet.

Reruns of the greatest series ever made (The Sopranos, The Wire, etc) would be combined with a mouthwatering offering of new shows from what has been a golden age in American television (see highlights panel), a smattering of the network’s own quality commissions, and a few bits from Sky Arts. It really is that good.

Launching in Ireland and Britain on February 1, for some people Sky Atlantic is the best thing to happen in tellyland since the dawning of the digital age.

Of course, most of those happy viewers will come from the 637,000 subscribers Sky has in Ireland. Anyone in those households will initially get the channel for free until August 31, and then it will be available at as part of the network’s Variety Pack and free to subscribers to Sky+HD.

Unfortunately, negotiations between Sky and UPC (Chorus/NTL) have been as fruitless as those with other cable operators in Britain, so no other carriers can offer it at the moment.

While this is a situation that may change, you can see why Sky would want to hang on to such a jewel in its crown. As well as stiff competition from other cable and satellite providers, terrestrial channels, Freeview boxes and dodgy decoders, the ever-increasing amount of illegal and legal internet downloads also squeezes its customer base. Atlantic offers Sky the chance to tempt a whole new audience who had resisted the draw of its Premier League coverage.

But while Rupert Murdoch breaks into a come-hither smile and flashes his promised land, it looks as if viewers outside the Sky club will suffer. Most of Atlantic’s programming comes from HBO — the doyen of quality drama — and Sky has secured a five-year deal for exclusive access to the American broadcaster’s output. While this won’t effect existing arrangements (RTÉ and Entourage; TG4 and True Blood; etc), nonsubscribers to Sky won’t have access to any of the fantastic new shows in the offing.

Some people will argue that there wasn’t sufficient access to such series, anyway. Mad Men — one of several, non-HBO shows on the Sky Atlantic roster — has provided a popular stick with which to beat the RTÉ schedulers. “Midnight on a Monday ... WTF?” has become an oft-heard refrain.

Sky is aware of such complaints from what is a smallish but dedicated tranche of viewers. “Unlike other broadcasters, Sky won’t hide these series in the twilight hours,” says Stuart Murphy, director of programmes for Sky Atlantic. Hence, the big launch day on February 1 has the $9m Scorsese-directed pilot of Boardwalk Empire at 9pm. Bring it on.

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