Hailing the arrival of a “new technological revolution” with the advent of digital broadcasting, Rupert Murdoch Wednesday unveiled a series of deals designed to keep his News Corp. empire firmly in the vanguard of the global TV business.
Speaking at a black-tie affair at the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall in London, Murdoch outlined a se-ries of recent acquisitions that will further the worldwide reach of his media conglomerate. Via satellite, his speech was conferenced to Hong Kong, New York, Sydney and Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, approximately 150 industryites gathered for the luncheon conference.
o News Datacom, News Corp.’s access control and encryption subsid, signed a three-way agreement Aug. 31 with the U.S. technology firm Comstream and the British telecommunications and research company NTL to develop a digital satellite broadcasting system, which the partners hope will become the market standard throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas.
o In the U.K., News Corp. has started working with British Telecom, the national telephone company, and cellular operator Cellnet to develop “the digital superhighway of the future.”
In an announcement to chill the hearts of British cable operators, Murdoch said, “This involves combining satellite technology with telephone networks, allowing consumers to access communications, TV shows, movies, sporting events and information technology as simply aspossible.”
In continental Europe, News Intl. has entered a pay-TV joint venture with Germany’s powerful Kirch family. They will launch a company in January to provide subscriber management and conditional access services for non-German satellite TV channels within the German-language area of Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Aside from these innovations on the tech front, Murdoch also announced new programming initiatives to expand the international presence of Fox and British Sky Broadcasting, the U.K. satellite TV venture 50% owned by News Corp.
On Aug. 28, Fox Broadcasting concluded a huge co-production pact with Mexico’s Televisa, the world’s largest Spanish-language broadcaster. Together they will make 500 hours of original, multi-lingual drama and special event programming a year. The first co-production will be to find the world’s best young opera singer.
On Oct. 1, Sky News, BSkyB’s 24-hour news channel, will launch via satellite in southern Africa. According to Murdoch, “plans are well advanced to take Sky News, or a parallel service, to all the continents of the world, where we will be seeking local partners.”
Early next year, BSkyB will launch its second sports channel in the U.K.
More vaguely, Murdoch spoke of the “enormous responsibilities” which came with News Corp.’s recent acquisition of a majority stake in Star TV, the Pan-Asian satellite broadcaster. He pledged to introduce a “wide range of new programming,” including an Open University channel, an arts channel and other educational services.
The News Corp. banquet where Murdoch spoke was held to celebrate the launch of Sky Multi-Channels, the new pay-TV package of Astra satellite channels, managed by BSkyB.
“Today is the first day of a new age of satellite TV in Britain,” Murdoch said. He attacked those who were nostalgic for the old world when viewers only had four tightly-regulated terrestrial TV channels. “We now have a variety of news, entertainment and sport that for many marks the start of a real golden age , not its end.”
During his speech, Murdoch referred to Arthur C. Clarke, who in 1945 wrote an article for Wireless World that prophesized that satellites would eventually be used to transmit data worldwide.
Then, in a taped satellite-conference between Murdoch and Clarke, who lives in Sri Lanka, the media magnate asked Clarke what he foresaw for the next 20 years.
“I believe everyone will have their own personal communications systems, in wristwatches and such,” Clarke said. “And everyone will have position finding equipment so that they will never be lost. And they will have personalized emergency distress alarms.”
Clarke also said that by the year 2000, he foresees a major change in telephone service. “There will be no more long distance charges,” he said. “There will just be one flat rate for a call, like postage.”
Sky Multi-Channels contains several services, including UK Gold, the Children’s Channel and the BSkyB entertainment channel Sky One, which were previously available free of charge to satellite dish owners.
Now, satellite viewers will have to pay T3.99 a month, rising to T6.99 in January, for a package which also includes some channels formerly available only on cable, such as Discovery, Bravo and Country Music Television, and some which are completely new to the U.K., including Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite, VH-1, the Family Channel and UK Living.
Critics say that the new channels offer a diet of American imports, many decades old, mixed in with a few British reruns, and that the package costs more than the TV license fee which pays for the BBC.
Murdoch describes it as “an explosion of consumer choice.””Cho-ice is only one characteristic of the new telecommunications era,” he said. “The others are equally extraordinary — covergence and interactivity.” But he had a word of warning: “It is important to distinguish between technological possibilities, commercial feasibility and public demand.”
Nonetheless, Murdoch believes that technological advances in communications are liberating the world from the grip of authoritarian elites who try to tell their subjects what to think — whether Communist governments, the British TV establishment or, indeed, old-style media moguls.
“The days when a few newspaper publishers could sit down and agree to keep an entire nation ignorant of a major event are long gone,” said Murdoch, whose critics accuse him of using his newspapers to further his commercial and political ends.