Sky beams up posh HQ

BSkyB takes on Beeb with news makeover

LONDON — In the U.S., News Corp.’s Fox News transformed TV news by pushing an opinionated, anti-liberal agenda. But it is another story across the Atlantic as Sky News — owned by the Murdoch-controlled paybox BSkyB — gears up to eclipse the BBC at its own, more sedate game.

This week Rupert Murdoch will officially open Sky News’ futuristic HQ, fashioned from a dilapidated warehouse beneath the Heathrow approach path, as part of the biggest shakeup in rolling news coverage in the U.K. for a decade.

“Sky News is about to deliver the next revolution in 24-hour news,” claims the outfit’s topper, British TV news vet Nick Pollard. “We are well funded and well armed for the fight ahead.”

Sky News’s multimillion- dollar makeover follows 18 months of intensive work on what may be the world’s biggest and most expensive TV news studio. BSkyB topper James Murdoch has ponied up the coin for the money-losing Sky News service amid intense competish from its rivals.

“This is all about Sky reasserting themselves as leaders in the field and making a big statement,” maintains Stewart Purvis, ex-boss of rival Independent Television News, who reckons the studio cost not less than £10 million ($17.8 million).

Designed by New York-based newsroom architects the Janson Design Group and set designers Production Design Group, the facility is certainly eye-catching.

“When I first saw it, it took my breath away,” observes Purvis, now a journalism professor at London’s City University.

“More like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise than a conventional TV news studio,” reckoned a media wag during the press tour.

Measuring some 7,500 square feet, the newsroom is double the size of the previous Sky News facility, which was literally falling to bits and risked going off the air this fall when a downpour threatened a flood.

The gleaming red and blue news hub features a state-of-the-art rotating news desk and a so-called news wall comprising 36 LED tiles that gives Sky great flexibility to highlight footage of the day’s big stories.

So much for style; can the content compete?

The first of Blighty’s 24-hour news nets when it launched almost 17 years ago, today Sky faces intense competition from rival channels, led by BBC News 24, and a host of Internet-based news services.

Sky enjoys an unmatched reputation for breaking hard stories first. On July 7, when terrorists bombed the London subway, ratings soared at Sky, the channel of choice for other U.K. media and government newsrooms.

But at other times, Sky is neck and neck with BBC News 24; CNN and the ITV News Channel bring up the rear.

The relaunch aims to deliver a more consistent performance overall. To that end, the traditional rolling news format has been jettisoned in favor of shows designed to cater to different auds at different times of the day.

Pollard’s spending spree includes acquiring talent from rival orgs, such as breakfast anchor Eamonn Holmes, and experimenting with three anchors instead of the traditional two.

Another signing is former Clinton State Dept. aide James Rubin, hosting a nightly international newsshow.

“These changes will seek to broaden our appeal while cementing our position as the most innovative force in news television,” says Pollard.

He is determined to compete with the “very best the terrestrial channels offer in terms of exclusive stories and guests, production values and analysis.”

Pollard wants more recognition for individual reporters and production teams. But insiders wonder if the new, more upscale approach will dilute Sky’s hard-won reputation for being first with the big stories as working the newsroom gizmos and concentrating on high production values risk jeopardizing old-fashioned reporting. Pollard says this won’t happen. “When a big story breaks, we’ll tear up the schedule.”

He also rules out any attempt to emulate Fox News by giving the news a more opinionated slant, and one that reflects Murdoch’s right-of-center worldview.

British audiences, he says, have no appetite for biased news, and in any case U.K. regulators wouldn’t allow it.

In the past, when Sky flirted with a crude polemical program fronted by liberal-baiting Sun columnist Richard Littlejohn, the show flopped. (Murdoch owns the tabloid.)

“I like working here because it is straight Western news,” says Rubin. “These guys believe in reporting the news straight and there are others, who shall remain nameless, who don’t.”

But as BSkyB topper James Murdoch increases his investment in a loss-making service and regulators loosen their grip as an all-digital world emerges, will he resist the temptation to ‘Fox-ify’ Sky News?

The heavily resourced BBC, under the new leadership of ambitious news topper Peter Horrocks, is determined to prove once and for all that News 24 can beat Sky on breaking stories.

If Horrocks succeeds and the Sky relaunch fails to deliver, the Fox route could prove too much to ignore.

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