Sky’s golden run may be com­ing to an end

Marlborough Express - - COMMENT&OPINION - KARL DU FRESNE


I’m feel­ing very on-trend at the mo­ment, to use a fash­ion­able ex­pres­sion. I re­cently watched se­ries one of the TV drama Twin Peaks for the first time. It orig­i­nally screened on Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion in 1990.

OK, so it took me a while to get around to see­ing it. Ge­of­frey Palmer was prime min­is­ter when it was made and Mikhail Gor­bachev was in charge of the Soviet Union. But hey, you can’t rush into these things.

I now feel I’ve elim­i­nated an em­bar­rass­ing deficit in my cul­tural ed­u­ca­tion, be­cause Twin Peaks is one of those pro­grammes that ev­ery­one who pro­fesses to be even vaguely hip has seen so many times that they can mouth the script in sync with the ac­tors.

It’s com­monly de­scribed as a cult se­ries, which is usu­ally a po­lite way of say­ing that a hand­ful of arty crit­ics raved about it, but it was a com­mer­cial flop. Ac­tu­ally, se­ries one was a rat­ings suc­cess. It was only when the pro­duc­ers tried to stretch an al­ready thin plot into a sec­ond se­ries that it failed.

Twin Peaks is os­ten­si­bly a mur­der mys­tery, but to use that de­scrip­tion is like say­ing Moby Dick is a story about a fish­ing trip. The pro­gramme’s ap­peal hinges not on its plot, but on de­li­ciously quirky char­ac­ters and sur­real sit­u­a­tions.

For the 50-minute run­ning time of each episode, you ba­si­cally en­ter an al­ter­na­tive uni­verse – the fic­tional log­ging town of Twin Peaks in Wash­ing­ton State – where al­most ev­ery­one is se­ri­ously weird and noth­ing makes much sense.

Alas for the pro­duc­ers, quirky char­ac­ters and sur­real sit­u­a­tions can get you only so far. By se­ries two, the weak­nesses in the me­an­der­ing story line were be­com­ing all too ob­vi­ous. I gave it away af­ter just two episodes.

Why am I writ­ing about Twin Peaks? Sim­ply be­cause of the fact I was able to watch it on de­mand, stream­ing it on my ‘‘smart’’ TV nearly three decades af­ter it was first screened, il­lus­trates the rev­o­lu­tion­ary changes in our TV view­ing pat­terns.

His­tor­i­cally, tele­vi­sion view­ing in New Zealand can be roughly di­vided into three phases.

For the first 15 years, from 1960-1975, we watched one sta­te­owned chan­nel. Tele­vi­sion then was a great so­cial uni­fier, be­cause ev­ery­one watched the same pro­grammes – Pey­ton Place, Bo­nanza, Corona­tion Street, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Stu­dio One, Star Trek – and talked about them the next day.

Even when a sec­ond chan­nel was in­tro­duced, it was still sta­te­owned. There was more choice, but the diet re­mained essen­tially the same.

It wasn’t un­til broad­cast­ing was dereg­u­lated by the Labour Gov­ern­ment in 1989 that a pri­vate com­peti­tor, TV3, en­tered the mar­ket. But the real game-changer was the ar­rival of pay tele­vi­sion, with the launch of Sky TV in 1990.

Sky TV was a per­fect ex­am­ple of what is now known as a dis­rupter, us­ing tech­nol­ogy and a new busi­ness model to lure view­ers away from the tra­di­tional free-to- air chan­nels.

Its ar­rival sig­nalled the end of tele­vi­sion as an agent of so­cial co­he­sion, be­cause view­ers were now pre­sented with a wide range of view­ing op­tions. The days when vir­tu­ally the en­tire pop­u­la­tion watched the same pro­gramme were gone.

Cru­cial to Sky’s strat­egy was the ac­qui­si­tion of mo­nop­oly rights to screen ma­jor sport­ing events – a li­cence to print money in a sports­mad coun­try.

In this, Sky was spec­tac­u­larly suc­cess­ful, en­abling it to be­come a dom­i­nant player in tele­vi­sion – de­spite the com­pany mak­ing vir­tu­ally no con­tri­bu­tion to the pro­duc­tion of do­mes­tic pro­grammes other than live sport.

Sky’s con­trol of sport sig­nalled the death of the egal­i­tar­ian ethos by which all New Zealan­ders could share in the tri­umphs and dis­ap­point­ments of the coun­try’s ma­jor teams.

There were now two New Zealands – the one that paid to watch the All Blacks or the Black Caps on Sky, and the rest. Peo­ple with­out Sky no longer feel the same en­gage­ment with na­tional teams be­cause they don’t get to see them play. I could trip over Sam Cane or Ryan Crotty in the street to­mor­row and not recog­nise them.

But per­haps Sky’s golden run is com­ing to an end, be­cause an even more po­tent dis­rupter has en­tered the mar­ket. I watched Twin Peaks on Light­box and im­me­di­ately be­fore that I en­joyed Fargo – the TV se­ries, not the movie – on Net­flix.

I can stream tele­vi­sion pro­grammes us­ing these ser­vices at what­ever time of day I like and there are no com­mer­cial in­ter­rup­tions. Stream­ing el­e­vates free­dom of choice to a whole new level, and sud­denly Sky TV is look­ing very much like yes­ter­day’s tech­nol­ogy. How very sad.

Sky still con­trols ma­jor sport, of course, and showed its ar­ro­gance and greed on Satur­day night by broad­cast­ing a com­mer­cial when we should have heard the Bri­tish na­tional an­them be­fore the Eden Park rugby test.

I will dance on Sky’s grave, metaphor­i­cally speak­ing, if and when it loses its stran­gle­hold. It would be poetic jus­tice if it was brought down by the same process of tech­no­log­i­cal dis­rup­tion that en­abled it to thrive in the first place.


The post­war English house­wife was as likely to cook with gar­lic as she was with ar­senic.


From 1960 to the 1990s New Zealand’s TV diet was re­stricted to one, and then two, state-owned chan­nels.

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