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Sky's March of Destiny

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Some 22 years ago, what was the old Sky Television promised to shake up the broadcast landscape in the UK forever. With four channels to start and the intention of a further two, your home could have a choice of twelve channels. Their adverts at the time carried a tag-line of "Suddenly TV is looking up": in those days, when satellites were an exotic concept, it was probably apt.

Sky Television itself didn't last long, eventually sustained by a merger with rival British Satellite Broadcasting in 1990 which created the path toward the BSkyB we know today. The Simpsons became their big ticket US import to build Sky One's schedule around, while England's touring cricketers were the first exclusive of their sporting portfolio. The journey from that point to today has been both extraordinary and checkered, Sky's place within Rupert Murdoch's larger machine that is News International has led to a customer strategy of divide and conquer. The disdain his empire is held in by many in the United Kingdom has continually been challenged by a gradual charge in the fields of technology, innovation and content. In reality Sky has always been the Millwall of broadcasters - nobody likes them and they don't care.

Yet many will line up to defend what they do on both sides of the Atlantic. And Sky are seemingly 'getting' the need to be seen as a British broadcaster after many false dawns. The phone hacking scandal involving NI's stable of newspapers has opened old wounds however, with a public increasingly savvy to the lay of the land in Murdoch's kingdom.

Of broadcasting battles, that involving the BBC and Sky has been defining. One represents the traditions of public service broadcasting in Britain, the other's the funky, 'loadsamoney' upstart. Their struggles have informed the wider television landscape over the last two decades. They have traded blows and ideas, and today are if nothing else respectful enemies.

It is their symbiotic relationship which provides the backdrop for what is to be a defining chapter in Sky's tumultuous history - and all in the space of a month. Firstly, Sky launch their dedicated Formula 1 channel having poached exclusive rights to show all twenty Grands Prix over the next six years from the BBC.

Later in March, Sky's Atlantic channel screens the latest series of Mad Men, possibly one of the greatest American dramas to have ever been shown on British television. Again, Sky poached the rights from the BBC following a bidding war with the show's American makers.

Both acquisitions are very much of the moment, but speak to a necessity that Sky will stop at nothing to reach out and cajole a skeptical public to part with their money and consume content they love dearly. But in turn both represent a stark gamble.

On the matter of F1, Sky tried and failed to make it one of their own with a pay-per-view channel dropped after one season in 2002. When the BBC and Sky announced the new deal last year, the outcry was endemic. The vitriol and hatred felt toward Sky made it clear that the sport would be losing fans and supporters across the country. The BBC didn't get off lightly either, but the move to a subscription network - however glossy those adverts are - is a huge risk for the channel. Whilst it is being launched as an independent silo away from other Sky Sports programming, fan chatter suggests that many will remain loyal to what races and coverage the BBC will offer.

As for Mad Men, creator Matthew Weiner can only hope the move to Sky does not come with a familiar kiss of death: we've been here before, and seen them swoop for rights to show the likes of Friends, Lost and Prison Break who all effectively came into the network's programming and then got canned within a couple of years. Whilst Sky might not quite be the place where US imports go to perish the historical signs are ominous. Mad Men is surely too good to face a similar outcome but one only has to look at how badly buzz around Broadwalk Empire and Glee has faded since their high profile launches.

Time will tell.

For Bart Simpson read Christina Hendricks; for Graham Gooch, Lewis Hamilton. Sky's halcyon days of the nineties are back like the ghost of a svelte Richard Keys. We're about to see if the March of 2012 buys them another twenty years to finally usurp all in British broadcasting.