[NOTE: This article originally appeared on Medium last September. I’ve rewritten some of the following to bring things up to date a little.]
It’s now just over twelve months* since Sky One was filed alongside Bravo, Carlton Select and U>Direct on Wikipedia’s list of defunct UK television channels. This is a suitable opportunity to reflect on what we waved goodbye to (or, at the very least, said ‘what the hell is Sky Showcase?’ around this time last year).
(*Okay, “it’s now thirteen months.”)
Sky themselves didn’t do anything to mark the passing of the channel itself, save for a passing comment by their continuity announcement at the close of Sky One’s last day on-air. On one level that’s understandable — putting together an hour-long tribute about how great the channel was could just make Sky seem like a bunch of heartless sods for killing off this beloved beacon of non-terrestrial broadcasting. Also, if they were to do a compilation of all the Sky One idents, it’d take about an hour as they kept rebranding the channel every other year. But the biggest elephant in the room would have been that for all Sky’s best efforts at producing a homegrown hit, many of the programmes their customers really wanted were Big American Franchises. Many of which were admittedly nabbed from under the noses of the terrestrial channels who’d put in the hard yards of building a loving audience — most notably 24 and The X-Files from the BBC, Lost and Friends from Channel Four.
And, of course, there was The Simpsons. The family that did more than anyone else to draw audiences to Sky One. That’s probably why Sky Showcase, the channel taking One’s old slot and focused on prime picks from Sky’s genre-based channels, retained that scheduling lynchpin (even though – EXCITING FACT! – daily repeats of The Simpsons was a practice that actually began on short-lived analogue satellite channel Sky Two).
Outside of their sporting and news coverage, Sky have never really seemed bothered about marking their own history. Sky Sports’ Premier League Years is happy to splash around in old footage, on-screen graphics and bad-suited punditry of years long gone, and Sky News made a point of celebrating 30 years on air in 2019. But you’ll never see any such hoo-ha from Sky’s entertainment portfolio. With that in mind, here’s a look back at many of the programmes that made Sky One what it was.
Because it’s 2021 and Data Is Important, I’m going to take a look through twenty years of viewing figures for Sky One, and pick out some of the most popular shows — those that stayed popular, and those that audiences soon tired of. But — as those viewing figures are only available for 1998 onwards — here’s a quick scamper through some standout shows of Sky One’s first decade (or thereabouts) on air.
THE DJ KAT SHOW (1986)
After Roland Rat transformed the fortunes of early-morning ITV in the early 1980s, what better way to get your new channel up and running than to try something similar? So, replace a cocksure streetwise rat puppet with… a cocksure streetwise cat puppet. This at a time when the overwhelming majority of (what was then) Sky Channel’s output was affordable imported content, old films and pop videos, so at least having in-vision linking material between cartoons made for some original content. Initially a Dutch character — the show first appearing at a time when Sky Channel was watched much more widely on the continent — by the time a more UK/Ireland-focused Sky Channel became Sky One in 1989, DJ Kat was a much more British beast, with Tower Bridge and similar landmarks looming large in the opening titles, and original host Linda de Mol (sister of media titan John de Mol) replaced with Steffanie Pitt.
JAMESON TONIGHT (1989)
Does a British television channel truly exist unless it’s tried to make its own version of The Tonight Show or Late Night with David Letterman? All the terrestrial channels certainly took their shot at the format, and it was Sky One’s turn in 1989 when Jameson Tonight first stomped into the Astra footprint zone. Each episode being recorded at London’s Windmill Theatre, it made the same mistake as many of the British pretenders to the Carson/Letterman/Leno throne, eschewing the practice of having a quick-witted, well connected and storied stand-up taking the reins of the show, but plumping for Just Someone People Have Heard Of. And so it was that Derek Jameson, former Daily Mirror and News of the World editor, who’d become a well-known face on British TV following BBC2 series Do They Mean Us?, a weekly glance at how Britons are covered by foreign TV networks. His boisterous bluster was certainly something that seemed to stick in the collective psyche, with Jameson swiftly joining the ranks of Spencer, Bruno and Street Porter in The List of People Everyone Thinks They Can Do An Impression Of, which is likely the reason he was chosen for such a role. There’s a full edition of the show on YouTube, and it’s a perfect little time capsule of Early Sky — they’re definitely trying to wring everything they can out of a modest budget, even if (as Channel Five would later find out) all this is likely to be for nothing if you can’t get many famous bums on that guest couch.
SALE OF THE CENTURY (1989)
An early example of Sky blagging the rights to a popular format to lure viewers over with a little brand recognition, it certainly didn’t hurt that the Anglia TV original series from the 1970s came with a reputation as a homely low-cost format. Peter Marshall, a former announcer of the original series, came on board as host, and despite only lasting until 1991, the series clocked up an impressive 458 episodes. Especially impressive work from whoever rustled up the requisite number of contestants for that many shows.
GAMES WORLD (1993)
For something that famously Isn’t Worth Putting On Television, there were quite a lot of TV programmes about videogames in the 1990s*. First and definitely foremost was Channel 4’s Gamesmaster, which won over a nation’s youngsters by letting them finally confirm who was best at Street Racer out of PJ and Duncan. Producers Hewland International took that format and made it a twice-weekly event on Sky One, with MeDinner’s Bob Mills as host, along with (amongst others) a young David Walliams on comedy business duties.
(*If you count ‘the 1990s’ as lasting until 2001 so we can include C4’s Thumb Bandits in the list, making it at least four different ones.)
POLICE STOP! (1994)
Every era seems to have a fleeting straight-to-video fad, be it football blooper videos, hack stand-up sets or those ‘Interactive Quiz’ games based on long-cancelled TV shows. Someone produces an unexpectedly popular offering during a pre-Christmas shopping season, the following year there’s a flood of them, then the number shrinks year on year until the next fad comes along.
In the early 1990s, the big craze was for Car Accident videos. 75 minutes of people slamming motors into trees, hedges, each other — catnip for the kind of person who’ll cause a road accident by staring at someone else’s road accident. But it’s NOT exploitative, because there’s a policeman being interviewed near the end saying that you shouldn’t do that kind of thing yourself. See, educational.
Anyway, one of the leading series of the Berks In Cars genre was ‘Police Stop!’, collating together footage of Berks both British and international from police cars and helicopters. Inspector David Rowland was on hand to provide the requisite amount of finger wagging, but the true inspiration came from picking Graham Cole (aka the stern but avuncular PC Stamp from The Bill) for voiceover duties.
All those video sales soon attracted the attention of Sky, who sealed a deal with producer Bill Rudgard to premiere new feature-length episodes of the series on Sky each year. Not only that, but the rights to screen the existing video releases were also secured — a move that proved popular enough to last until 2001. The strand also attracted the attention of ITV, who’d launch their own take on the topic later in 1994, as the first episode of Police Camera Action! hit a nation’s screens. TV screens, not windscreens. Obviously.
BEAT THE CRUSHER (1998)
The reputation that Sky TV was nothing more than trash for Sun readers hung around the network for a number of years following their 1989 launch. Once that Murdoch stink is on you, it takes a lot to get it off. But any efforts to shake that reputation were shattered by this tawdry piece of late 90s tat. How late 90s was it? It was hosted by Melinda Messenger, who was ‘assisted’ by attention seeking missile Freddie Starr. And the big end game saw two couples purportedly gambling their family car in the hope of winning a new one. The losing couple’s car was duly dropped into a car crusher and… well, crushed. Because cruelty is hilarious, isn’t it? The look of malice in Starr’s eyes in the title sequence — there may as well be a thought bubble above his head saying “stop watching my programmes on ITV will you, The British Public? I’ll fucking show you.”
If you feel the need to learn more about this offering, or even if you don’t, I definitely recommend Stuart Millard’s video covering the show. Because no matter how bad you’re thinking it may have been, it’s much worse.
TOP TEN SKY ONE SHOWS PER YEAR, 1998–2018
Okay, onto the numbers.
Sky Digital launched in 1998, and with the oncoming digital-only future for British television, this was the point where Sky One certainly wanted to stake a claim to a part of the establishment. Could Sky One really become as beloved an institution as Auntie Beeb and Nation’s Favourite Button ITV? Or will that early history simply keep repeating itself? Luckily for us, BARB’s viewing figures go back all the way to 1998, so we can take a look at the top ten Sky One shows per year (at least up until 2018, as I’ll explain later). Let’s take a look:
1998 (29 June — 31 Dec)
Despite the channel having a solid foundation of imported American TV, it’s one of Sky’s homegrown efforts — Greece Uncovered — that proved to be the most popular programme of 2018. The third in the series of ‘Uncovered’ documentaries, following on from Ibiza Uncovered (probably the most infamous of the lot) and Caribbean Uncovered, the Hellenic variant of the booze-n-bonking strand proved as popular as ever with Sky One viewers. Little-remembered fact: the …Uncovered programmes were made for Sky by LWT. How the mighty etc. Mind you, for all the talk of it representing a new low for tacky television, it didn’t stop Channel Four giving Ibiza Uncovered a repeat run in 1999.
HEAVY DISCLAIMER: figures aren’t available (or aren’t available to me, unless anyone reading this has PDFed up a huge trove of Broadcast Magazine) for viewing figures before the end of June, when the first run of Friends’ season four would have aired. It’s very likely that would have beaten the figure for Greece Uncovered.
US imports make up much of the other spaces on the list, with Sky stalwarts The Simpsons, Friends and Deep Space Nine filling out the rest of the top four places. Perhaps unsurprisingly given what British telly was like in the late 90s, British Sex also made the top five (sidebar: the bits of Eurotrash capturing British sexual mores always underlined how everything is just that bit grimmer here, didn’t they?).
As if to underline the contents of that heavy disclaimer above, Friends takes the top spot by miles, with the first run of season five bagging viewing figures around the 2m mark, with that 2.41m highpoint coming from the season premiere on 7 January. And I’ll wager the true figure may have been much higher, with keen Friends fans borrowing E180s from dish-owning pals and relatives rather than wait until the series reached Channel 4 in the summer.
A stateside phenomenon that seemed almost as big at the tail-end of the 90s was definitely South Park, with the foul-mouthed Colorado quartet peeking out from magazine covers, merchandise and VHS boxes taken back to shops by angry parents who’ve little concept of BBFC ratings. Series one of South Park had aired in early 1998 (pre-dating available data for ’98 above), and the second series makes the top ten for 1999 in ninth place. It didn’t get as many viewers as Stargate SG-1, though. Which shows there’s no accounting for taste. There will be a lot of Stargate SG-1 on these lists, and this is the only paragraph where I’m going to mention it.
Aside from the collection of must-see US entertainment up there (The X-Files, ER, DS9, Voyager — Sky really did hoover up everything back then), it’s a farewell to the ‘…Uncovered’ strand as an object of cultural curiosity. While the production team tried to go back to basics with 2000’s Ibiza Uncovered II, the sight of bronzed Brits trying to drink and shag their way through a fortnight somehow fell from favour. Astonishing, isn’t it?
Another year at the top for Coffee Friends, with an episode broadcast on 13 July attracting one of Sky One’s highest ever viewing figures. However, Friends wouldn’t become as glued to the Sky One schedules as The Simpsons — by 2001, first run rights were comfortably back in the pockets of Channel 4 and E4.
A real curio in second spot — Blackadder Back and Forth. Originally commissioned to be shown in the SkyScape Cinema at the Millennium Dome, that’s probably where it should have stayed, where it’s only likely to have troubled the few thousand fools who’d stepped into the risible rotunda. A watered-down version of the best sitcom of the 1980s, this missed the target on all fronts, not least the clumsy inclusion of product placement, Baldrick saying ‘cunning plan’ every thirteen seconds and Shakespeare being punched in the face because, hey, boring. While one can easily imagine that up against the ill-considered edutainments making up the rest of the Millennium Dome, a chance to go ‘yaaaay!’ at a joke about Baldrick’s pants would be a welcome relief when amongst a SkyScape audience. But at home, where you could be doing any of a dozen different things you enjoy, it’s much less welcome.
Speaking of open goals shanked into the car park, this was a year where Sky made a concerted effort to ramp up its comedy output. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person keenly awaiting a Monday night double-bill of a brand new Harry Enfield sketch series, following by a Pub Landlord sitcom written by post-TMWRNJ Richard Herring. Sadly, and perhaps inevitably, both fell way below expectations, with Harry Enfield’s Brand Spanking New Show proving especially disappointing. With Enfield’s attention drawn by post-production work on Kevin and Perry Go Large, and the script packed with “same joke every week” characters (Rodney Bond, 007’s dull brother; a pair of Noel Coward types who subvert expectations by taking about then-new tropes; a footballer more concerned about his hair than football), enthusiasm and viewing figures swiftly declined. From the 12 episodes of the series, only the first two troubled a BARB weekly top ten for the channel.
After their gamble on homegrown comedy in 2000 (which did continue into 2001, with David Baddiel’s stab at a Seinfeld Baddiel’s Syndrome and a Christmas special of Time Gentlemen Please, both of which failed to make a weekly top ten), it seemed like Sky One played it as safely as they could for 2001. Imported programmes make up the majority of the top ten, but they found a surprise hit with the second series of Kirsty’s Home Videos. Nothing more than a tackier copy of You’ve Been Framed (I mean, just look at the title sequence for it – even by 2001 standards, that was awful), and nothing the channel hadn’t tried before — the early years of the channel had seen Chris Tarrant’s Secret Video Show. It certainly helped that the original show on ITV was in the middle of the Riley-fronted doldrums at the time, about which the only positive thing was Davey Jones’ Viz strip Lisa Riley’s Ungainly Dancing Grandma Garrison and nothing else.
Other than that, it’s all very generic early-2000s Sky One up there. Noteworthy that while the top ten for 2000 contained only one show attracting fewer than a million viewers, for 2001 there are six such programmes. And if you’re wondering The Bombmaker was shown several months before September.
2002 and another year where an episode of The Simpsons is the most-watched thing on Sky One that year. Though for my money, it’s Dinotopia at number two that’s perhaps quintessential Sky One — big bollocks American ‘Event’ Television that got promoted like mad at the time and which pretty much nobody remembers now. For the record (and from the Wikipedia) it was an adaptation of James Gurney’s books about three Americans who’d crash-landed on a remote uncharted island inhabited by people and dinosaurs. Nope, me neither.
Most popular programme of 2003 was an event kind of caught on the rebound from a much more popular event over on ITV. Martin Bashir’s infamous Tonight Special: Living with Michael Jackson was a phenomenon for the World in Action replacement, attracting 15.32m viewers. As a result of the fallout from Bashir’s show, Jackson himself worked with Fox to put forward his own side of the story, including scenes featured in Bashir’s documentary shown from alternate angles filmed by Jackson’s own entourage. Sky won the bidding war for the UK rights to the resultant two-hour documentary, with channel controller Dawn Airey proclaiming it “one of the must-see television events of the year”. It did indeed prove a ratings hit for the channel, with the only 2m-plus audience of the year. It’s notable how quick the turnaround was here — Bashir’s documentary was broadcast on ITV on 3 February 2003, while Jackson’s rebuttal was conceived, planned, filmed, sold and broadcast by Sky on 24 February 2003.
That early noughties fascination with David Blaine reached critical mass this year, with the stupidly titled ‘Above the Below’ (i.e. in a clear box above the Thames) attracting just under two million viewers as the American illusionist emerged from his perspex prison on 19 October. Such was the weird fascination with Blaine’s stunt, Sky even offered live continuous Red Button coverage of the 44-day event. Forty-four days! Channel Four’s delayed coverage of Blaine’s exit, broadcast 24 hours after Sky’s live coverage, attracted a further 2.44 million viewers.
2003 also saw the first (and only) appearance for football-based soap Dream Team in an annual top ten. The Ted Lasso of its day, in many ways. But by that, I only mean the Christmas special of Ted Lasso — i.e. it wasn’t very good.
In a rare example of a ‘bigger’ channel seeing something on Sky and making their own version of it, The Match proved to be a winning format that (arguably, except no, I’m definitely correct) begat ITV’s long-running Soccer Aid charity match. It’s a formula that seems so obvious now, it’s a surprise Sky hadn’t done it much sooner — have a top football manager train up a team of celebrity wannabe footballers, film the training sessions, have poor performers voted out of the squad, and have it all culminate in a live match where the Celeb XI take on a team of Premiership legends. The corporate synergy between One and Sports made it a natural fit, and attracting celebrities to such an endeavour was hardly a hard sell. Get to play football, in a full St James’ Park, against the likes of Gazza, Beardsley and Waddle, and all for charity?
A decidedly different kind of Celebrity-Based Programming made the number two spot, with Kay Burley interviewing alleged Beckham tryst participant Rebecca Loos. Going by the Daily Mirror’s review of the interview, one that was very much of the Princess Di school of interview (doleful glances, crash-course PR tutorship still heavy in the air), and very much one that Channel Five would have sown up before Sky One could open their chequebook these days.
More poaching from Sky One saw Jack Bauer migrate from BBC2 in February. Though it didn’t seem to prove quite as popular as Sky presumably hoped — the BBC2 broadcasts of 24 saw nearly four million viewers tune in, but by the time series three debuted on Sky One, that figure was down to just over a million. And that was the high point for the series on Sky One — figures soon dropped to around the 600,000 mark, with only five episodes of S3 making the weekly top ten.
Lastly, with so much going on in that top ten, there’s not much room left to mention There’s Something About Miriam. Probably for the best, eh? Aside from saying: next time Someone Who Used To Do A Famous Programme pops up to say “ooh, you couldn’t make a show like mine these days”, it’s always either (a) untrue, or (b) both true and A Good Thing. This is one of the latter.
The second series of The Match culminated in another sell-out St James’ Park crowd, where ‘Sir Bobby Robson’s Football Legends XI’ (not easy to turn into a chant, that) beat a Celebrity XI 2–0, with goals from Nigel Winterburn and Ally McCoist. That wasn’t the only pro-celebrity football match to draw a big audience on the channel in 2005 — Easter Sunday saw a charity match where the likes of Ralf Little, Brian McFadden and Shane Richie tackled the likes of Robbie Fowler, Alan Hansen and Ian Rush to help provide aid of the victims of the Asian tsunami.
Now part of the select genre ‘CGI-animated series that precede disaster’, Father Of The Pride followed a family white lions, fitting nicely into the standard template for a family-based sitcom, even down to Quirky Vocation For the Patriarch — on this occasion as star of Siegfried & Roy’s Vegas show. Despite Roy Horn’s near-death following an on-stage mauling by a white tiger, production on the show continued with the blessing of the German-American double act, but perhaps the unhappy coincidence tainted the finished product for NBC viewers, with far-from-magic viewing figures resulting in swift cancellation. The novelty wore off equally quickly on Sky One, with viewing figures dropping week-on-week.
Category 6: Day Of Destruction was — and this will surprise nobody, given the title — an imported miniseries where the environment gets pissed off and decides to give Chicago a good kicking. But! There’s also a hacker-induced power outage hampering the rescue effort. In short, the kind of programme that wouldn’t get made today, but only because dystopian futures aren’t as much fun when you’re living in one.
Perhaps a no-brainer that the first TV adaptation of a Pratchett novel, especially one starring National Treasure David Jason (to use his full name), would be a big hit. And a hit it was — one of the highest viewing figures ever recorded for the channel, in fact. While The Hogfather failed to meet critical expectations (mine if nobody else’s), that large audience ensured a future for Terry Pratchett adaptations on the channel, with later offerings being definite improvements.
After the limp performance of 24 in the ratings battle for 2005 (it was actually 12th on the list for that year, if you’re wondering), it returns to the top ten for 2006, despite being one of the weaker seasons, the show very much in the ‘oh for fuck’s sake’ part of its life at this stage.
Last appearance here for The Match, as despite those high viewing figures (and for the third year running, a sold-out St James’ Park crowd), the programme wasn’t renewed for a fourth year. The Legends XI winning every match hardly helped maintain suspense — in three years of the series, only one goal had been scored by the celebrity side, and that by Jonathan Wilkes, whose Wikipedia entry introduction genuinely contains the phrase “is famous due to being a close friend of Robbie Williams”. Meanwhile, ITV’s Soccer Aid drew much bigger names (the actual Robbie Williams, Diego Maradona and Ruud Gullit for 2006), and crucially had a mixture of celebrity and former professionals on each side, making for more exciting matches.
Lost finds itself top of the list for 2007, with that high point reached just after the mid-season mini-hiatus for S3 (episode: “Flashes Before Your Eyes”, where a flashback showed Desmond’s time living in a version of London so bloody bad, one of the showrunners apologised for it. The one that had a British Army Recruitment office, in London, having a big poster featuring the word ‘Honor’. And Charlie appears as a busker doing ‘Wonderwall’ while someone sells chestnuts in the background. Yep, THAT bad. BUT ANYWAY). That it’s top of the tree here however says more about Sky One’s other offerings throughout 2007.
Elsewhere in the chart, there was an unexpected renaissance for Noel Edmunds, with both Noel’s Christmas Presents and Are You Smarter Than a 10 Year Old. Already back in the big time (Partridge reference, there) thanks to Deal or No Deal, his return to Christmas week TV proved especially popular. A continuation of the BBC1 Christmas Day mainstay that ran from 1989 to 1999, Noel distributed gifts and goodwill to those in need, and it was lapped up by a nation of nans (and I can only assume, several non-nans). If that weren’t enough, Noel also fronted a UK remake of US game show ‘Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?’. Plus, the following year he made Noel’s HQ, one of the most notorious programmes in the history of Sky. Which I can mention here, as it’s nowhere near the top ten for 2008. Or even any weekly top ten for that year.
Elsewhere in the chart, Ross Kemp’s first series for Sky — Ross Kemp on Gangs — proved to be the start of a long relationship with the channel. Ross Kemp On [A Thing] would be a format so hardy it would attract sizeable audiences for the next eleven years.
Two years after The Hogfather, a second big-budget Pratchett adaptation (this time in two parts) is the most-watched programme of the year, coaxed from the pages of both The Colour of Magic (well, obviously) and The Light Fantastic. Quite a cast — David Jason, Tim Curry, Jeremy Irons and Christopher Lee — and a concerted marketing campaign by Sky, including a premiere screening at London’s Curzon Cinema, helped attract that large audience, and a critical reception much warmer than that received by the Hogfather.
In second spot, an reworking that was perhaps a little less keenly anticipated, as a rebooted Gladiators crashed onto the screen. No Ulrika or John Awooga Fashanu this time, with Kirsty Gallacher and Ian Wright taking on hosting duties, nor did any of the original Gladiators return — original referee John Anderson was the only returning participant from the ITV era. The reboot failed to capture the attention enjoyed by the original series, with viewing figures plummeting like a contestant whacked off a platform with a pugil stick — an opening audience of 1.56m falling to 558k within a month.
Ross Kemp’s second series for the channel, this time spending time alongside British soldiers tackling the Taliban in Helmand Province, proved even more popular that his first. In a more sedate setting, Sky’s UK version of international hit Don’t Forget the Lyrics started in May, with Shane Richie accompanying contestants as they attempt to sing their way towards a £250, 000 jackpot. Hardly Mastermind, admittedly, but a sturdy format compared to Beat The Crusher — Sky are finally starting to engineer a lot of programming that the public are keen on. For the first time, the annual top ten most viewed programmes is split equally between UK-produced content and big name US imports.
After a successful set of viewing figures for 2008, the following twelve months saw a short-term wobble for Sky One. 2008 had seen an announcement stating Sky’s investment in three major new UK-produced drama series, costing a total north of £10m, but two of the three wouldn’t be ready for air until 2010. The first to be completed was Skellig, an adaptation of David Almond’s children’s novel, which aired in April. Another notable cast were affixed to the production, including Tim Roth in the title role, alongside Kelly Macdonald and John Simm, but viewing figures perhaps fell a little short of expectations, with just over a million viewers.
Another homegrown offering making the list was Martina Cole’s The Take, which followed the activities of sociopathic wrong ‘un Freddie Jackson following his release from prison. The presence of Tom Hardy in the leading role would likely result in viewing figures much higher than 900,000 were is broadcast nowadays.
All things considered, not a landmark year for Sky One. The figure of 1.33m viewers for the most popular programme (episode two of Lost’s penultimate season) is the lowest we’ve seen in the top spot so far.
The figures took a turn in an upwards trajectory in 2010, with debuts for what would become two of the channel’s breakout hits, and for the first time original commissions outnumber US imports in the top ten. An Idiot Abroad was an instant hit for the channel, with mardy-arsed Mancunian Karl Pilkington compelled to travel the world at the behest of cackling handers Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Whether the audience felt for homebody Pilkington as he complained his way across continents, or whether they just enjoyed seeing him suffer, this is a rare example of a heavily-promoted Sky One series growing an audience as it went on, with that 1.92m high point coming from the penultimate episode. Can’t help but suspect people were drawn to it after word went round that Ricky Gervais featured less heavily than the trailers implied.
Elsewhere on the list, A League of Their Own appears for the first time, the series having started in March. While it’s not something I’ve ever bothered with — every bit of it that I’ve ever seen makes it look like a straight-to-VHS ‘special’ of They Think It’s All Over, which nobody needs more of — there’s no arguing with the longevity of the damn thing. Those viewers can’t all just be people who’d fallen asleep during The Simpsons.
The third Terry Pratchett adaption also made it to air in 2010, with Going Postal the best of the bunch so far. Part of the aforementioned £10m investment into British drama — along with SAS drama Strike Back — ‘Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal’ (to use the full on-screen title, which unfairly suggests the famed author may have gone full D Fens, but then that’s probably the joke) saw Richard Coyle, Claire Foy, David Suchet and Charles Dance appear in the tale of thwarted conman Moist von Lipwig.
By 2011, An Idiot Abroad was easily the most popular original commission in Sky One’s history — that figure (from 23 September at 9pm) almost a million higher than its competition on both BBC2 and C4 in the same slot (‘Digging For Britain’ and ‘Million Pound Drop’, if you’re wondering).
A slight surprise in second place, with futuristic US import Terra Nova proving to be the first US import in years to become a huge hit for the channel (discounting the big hitters that’d built audiences elsewhere before being poached by Sky). And that’s not just down to a large audience for the series opener that swiftly tailed off, either — of the 13 episodes aired by Sky One, all but a couple were in the top-two most watched shows of the week. Unfortunately for space family Shannon — and Sky One — it didn’t prove quite as popular for stateside parent network Fox, meaning the series was cancelled after a single season.
Domestic programming continued to increase in popularity elsewhere on the list, with supermarket sitcom Trollied and thriller Mad Dogs making their debuts to appreciative audiences. And SAS drama Strike Back returned, which I’m sure pleased the kind of people who enjoy SAS drama series’.
2011 also saw a new threat to Sky One’s position as The Home of the Best US Drama — but this time from within its own Isleworth campus. Sky Atlantic arrived on the EPG of Sky customers, affixed to the tagline “Home of World Class Television”, and with it a promise to get all the prime cuts of HBO’s catalogue, along with top-class British drama and comedy. Might this mean that Sky One in restricted to any unwanted offcuts? Endless broadcasts of League of the Own? Noel’s Second HQ? Eep.
The overseas adventures of K Pilkington continued to prove popular in 2012, with the final series of the travelogue again the most popular programme of the year. And Sky attracted a similarly sizeable audience for their big budget adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Treasure Island on New Year’s Day. Elsewhere on the list, south Walian comedy drama Stella made its debut. Co-written by and starring Ruth Jones, this would prove another long-running hit for the channel — it would last for a total of six series, and bow out with a feature length finale in 2017.
First appearance on the list of Arrow, the US series focusing on DC’s costumed crimefighter of the same name. More of which later.
An Idiot Abroad may be no more, but whine exporter Karl Pilkington still wants to traverse the globe, this time to places of his own choosing — a little more Palin than Cleese this time, if you will. Despite the lack of his celebrity handlers — you know, the tall one and the cackling one —The Moaning of Life still proved popular, bringing in a smaller but still sturdy audience each week. Elsewhere, Stella continues to attract viewers, but it’s another homegrown comedy that is the true highlight of the list. Yonderland saw the key players from CBBC’s Horrible Histories attempt a primetime- (and family-) friendly sitcom, and they succeeded splendidly. Especially considering that a successful British pre-watershed sitcom something that — much like the participants of the titular location — isn’t supposed to exist in the real-life 21st century. Indeed, a trick that Baynton, Farnaby, Howe-Douglas et al have managed to pull off again with BBC1’s Ghosts.
Top of the chart for 2013 was — for the first time since 2009 — an American import, with post-apocalyptic sci-fi show Revolution proving an instant smash. Albeit only initially — within a few weeks, figures were half that of the season opener, and half of that by the end of the first season. All of which makes it barely a shock that the programme doesn’t feature at all in the top ten for 2014. Instead, it’s superhero series Arrow that has managed to maintain popularity, with figures slightly down from the previous year, but a placing in the top ten two spaces higher.
Another DC superhero series proves to be a huge hit — this time it’s The Flash, the American remake of The Beano’s Billy Whizz (presumably, I’m not checking). A slight surprise in second place, the revived 24: Live Another Day returning to our screens. Despite theoretically being hampered by the original series fizzling out to a point where only a fraction of the original audience still cared about it by the end, and (perhaps most pertinently) the season not even being 24 episodes long, this actually brought in higher viewing figures than any of the original series for Sky One.
Modern Family makes its first appearance in an annual top ten, five years after first arriving on the channel, while some Champions League overspill — perhaps Sky trying to score some goodwill by letting non-Sports subscribers enjoy some matches before BT Sport picked up rights to UEFA’s club competitions.
This could be the point where the post-Atlantic focus of Sky One becomes much clearer, as there’s a huge drop-off in UK-produced entertainment on the list. Stella and football aside, it’s imported US network fare all the way — but not the critically acclaimed cable fare, which is all over on Sky Atlantic (such as Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, The Leftovers, Last Week Tonight). So, Sky Atlantic had The Leftovers, while Sky One had the leftovers. Ha.
Yet another DC superhero outing at the top for 2015, with Supergirl the most popular programme of the year. That means there’s a total of three programmes from the DC Comics canon in the list, though at least there’s an upswing in UK-created content, with Raymond Briggs adaptation Fungus the Bogeyman in second place, The Moaning of Life holding steady and Stella clinging on in tenth place. Plus, Sky-NBC co-production You, Me and the Apocalypse, a series which if nothing else, means there has now been a primetime NBC series starring Pauline Quirke.
Getting towards the end of our twenty-year trek through the Sky One viewing figures, and a break from the new norm in 2016. Instead of yet another DC superhero series in the top spot, it’s… a Marvel superhero series. Except: no, not quite. Despite being co-created by Marvel’s own Übermensch, Stan Lee’s Lucky Man is actually a concept made for television without the involvement of the comic-book megacorp, and it’s an original British series to boot. James ‘Jimmy’ Nesbitt starred as ‘London Murder Squad’ DI Harry Clayton, a rusty copper suddenly given the power of supernatural luck.
Further down the list, just below the (I may as well just CTRL+C this damn phrase) DC Comic Book Adaptations, A League of Their Own has grown enough in popularity to return to the annual top ten. Cinema spin-off Limitless arrives and joins the throng, but at least there’s something a bit different at the tail end of the list.
The Five was a watchable miniseries mystery thriller from the pen (and brain) of crime author Harlan Coben — if you will, a self-contained Lost-style mystery that had the decency to know when it should wrap things up, while Delicious followed the misfortunes of those left behind by celebrity chef Leo in the wake of his passing.
A second series of Delicious takes the top of the list for 2017, which affords a little more space to write about it. This amiable series made for a welcome break from the other fare on Sky One, which can be filed alongside Sky’s 2016 series Agatha Raisin as a spirited attempt at making drama equally suited to Sunday night ITV. Some great turns by the cast — most notably the two leads, Dawn French and Emilia Fox — make it little surprise why this became appointment viewing for so many.
In second place, another original British drama series. Jamestown followed 17th century settlers they attempting to establish a community in the New World. The arrival of three women from England who are duty bound to marry the men who’d paid for their passage causes more than a little disquiet when it transpires that, hey, maybe they’d rather not do that. Far away from the standard type of UK-produced fare you’d expect to find on Sky One, and all the better for it.
All might be considered to be going well for the channel, but over on Sky Atlantic, Game of Thrones was picking up as many as 3.5m viewers (plus a million more for the same-week repeat), suggesting that bigger audiences can be gathered on the digital diaspora — and that’s without Atlantic being available on as many platforms as Sky One.
The last year under consideration now, and while there’s another new British drama at the top of the list — this time A Discovery of Witches, an adaptation of the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness — much of the list feels rather formulaic. The rest of that top ten in order: film, military, cops, cops, Jamestown, cops, quiz, cops and Delicious.
That’s where the available data runs out (BARB’s site uses a different format for displaying audience data from late 2018 onwards, and the layout makes it pretty clear they don’t want anyone datamining it). Since then, Sky have continued to commission new programming, such as family drama adaptation Moominvalley, crime drama Temple and comedy series’ such as Brassic, Code 404 and Frayed. But it was a major imported show that would be Sky One’s final big ratings success — Friends: The Reunion attracted a huge number of viewers in March 2021 — a total of 5.3m viewers. For comparison, the most-watched episode of EastEnders on BBC1 the same week drew just 4.3m viewers.
Tellingly however, it seems the bulk of those viewers — 3.8m of them — caught the programme on demand rather than watching the show as it went out on Sky One. The number of viewers waiting until Sky One’s first broadcast of the special at 9pm numbered just 1,096,000.
And perhaps that’s one of the reasons Sky felt emboldened in shuttering Sky One after so long — what’s on which channel when isn’t as much a concern when pullout programmes gain more prominance at the top of every Sky Q homescreen. Sky are now every bit as much about offering competition to Netflix and Prime (albeit a more expensive one) than traditional British broadcasters, and it’s the shows not the channels that really matter. That’s undoubtedly a shame for those of us who share a fascination with the television industry. We fear change. And that’s why it’s impossible to shake the feeling that Sky One’s retirement is a misstep.
Will it return if the viewership for Sky Showcase isn’t as hoped? Hard to say, but for now, a fond farewell to a channel that for many was square one for the world of non-terrestrial TV. Sure, a lot of it wasn’t perfect, but as these annual rundowns show — there’s a lot more UK-produced fare than the channel was given credit for.
Originally at the end of this article, I’d pondered if Sky One might return if viewing figures for Showcase aren’t as hoped, but in reality it’s not about that. As long as the subscriptions keep coming in – and with Sky now focusing on hardware like Sky Glass TV sets and the new Sky Stream box, they want more people than ever locked into their infrastructure – it seems increasingly clear that Sky aren’t massively fussed about how many people are watching their channels, as long as people are paying for them.
2 responses to “SKY (G)ONE: A History of Sky’s Flagship Channel”
A lovely retrospective. I imagine for those of us in our thirties and forties, Sky One will always hold a special place in our hearts as the place to go to see those exotic, enormously popular US imports. When we finally got Sky One in the late 90s it was like finding the holy grail.
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