Sky’s golden run may be coming to an end
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.