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Sunday Age

Screen test - Do we really need pay-TV?

Author: Peter Wilmoth
Date: 15/04/1995
Words: 2185
          Publication: THE SUNDAY AGE
Section: Agenda
Page: 5
The future of television might have arrived but it could do with a new coat of paint. Peter Wilmoth explored the world of Australia's first pay-TV operator.

WELCOME to the future . . . just mind those boxes on the side there.

The future has a foyer and apart from the piles of boxes there are sopping umbrellas and tradesmen trailing mud in discreet lines into this enormous warehouse.

Still, at least we're here. The taxi driver drew on his many years driving experience to get it wrong only five times. That's five attempted entry points on this unlovely, much-blocked alley called Bulwara Road before it was finally decided that that doorway over there, just underneath the busy Pyrmont overpass, must in fact be the headquarters of Galaxy pay-TV.

When you're looking for the future, it's just a touch of a come-down to have found the tradesman's entrance. But from this grimy industrial laneway of 20th century Sydney, we move into the technological wonderland that is pay-TV, and by God you want to sound positive because you'll feel very lonely indeed if you don't.

The general bonhomie that seethes through this building would make an Amway convention look sedate. Phrases such as ``tidal wave of excitement", ``making history" and ``buccaneering spirit" rent the air. It's new, it's never been done before. It is a ``greenfields site". They are pioneers and they aren't shy to remind you. One insider says: ``It's like launching eight Channel Nines." Says marketing manager Mark Collier: ``We've defied gravity."

Upstairs, in what is now a shell, Galaxy is building its permanent home. In the meantime, many decades worth of executive experience from around the world and their staff are making do. ``Pyrmont was destroyed around us," says Mark Collier, general manager of sales and marketing. ``It was like being in a battle zone. A building will be standing there one day and the next it's demolished. I had a meeting with CNN and they were going through the bedrock next door trying to excavate the foundations, and I had a cup of tea which just shook its way off the table."

A slight dose of gallows humor has not gone astray as Galaxy settles itself awkwardly into history as Australia's first pay-TV operator.

There have been triumphs. Snaring the cricket from Channel Nine for the West Indies Test series was perhaps its most illustrious.

Appearing in the newspaper every second day in its now-established underdog role has helped, too.

But the first cab off the rank has copped a few nails in its tyres, too. There is a secret fear that the ``early subscribers" are levelling off. After two months, the number of people who have taken the service up is believed to be under 5000, well below Galaxy's expectations of 200,000 within a year. Behind the optimistic smiles and gleaming brochures, there must have been some sleepless nights making it perhaps fortunate the cricket is on at 4am.

Says media analyst Bob Peters: ``It's confusing and disillusioning to many potential subscribers asking `What do I get for my $50?' The answer is `Not much'."

In an office Neil Gamble will be glad to exchange for the real thing, Galaxy's chief is ruminating on the service's start-up and the advantages of being first to start up. ``In every other country, not only is it an advantage, but you end up with the major position."

Mr Gamble we'll leave aside the poignancy of the name for a moment was born and raised in South Africa, emigrating to Australia in 1979 after a career in computers. He is a measured and softly-spoken man with the regulation Gary Larson `Far Side' cartoons on his desk.

``There is a sense that we are creating history," he says. ``We have some big tigers on our tail and it's good to be the underdog."

To take the animal metaphors one step further, Mr Gamble seems to be having a whale of a time. Gamble talks about attracting one million subscribers by 1998, which will make the company worth $3 billion. He declines to say how many subscribers it has now, (``We try and not announce our subscribers every time we meet a public person") but numbers have been disappointing.

Which leads to Mr Gamble's biggest problem. At $290 to come on line and $49 per month to stay there (``That's $1.60 a day," protests Mark Collier, ``barely the price of a can of Coke") and with consumers madly taping all the free-to-air shows they haven't time to watch, the question everyone is asking is: Do we really need pay-TV?

``With change always comes reticence," Mr Gamble says. ``It's up to us to create that tidal wave of excitement."

Down the hallway, marketing chief Mark Collier, from a background of radio reporting and management and an executive with News Limited magazines, is doing his best. He speaks proudly of Galaxy's achievements so far. ``Our chairman's philosophy is that this has happened everywhere else. We're the last country to get pay-TV.

Yugoslavia has more than a dozen channels, you can get it in Abyssinia, Ethiopia, straight from satellite. It's a tribute to the power of the existing media operators in Canberra that this thing has been pushed back for so long.

``For the last 10 months we've had against us Telecom, Optus, News Limited, the Nine network, the Seven network, the Ten network, CTS (Cable Television Services) . . . Anyone who has anything to do with electronic media has been or is a competitor . . ."

It's no accident Mark Collier is Galaxy's marketing chief. He took the job at Galaxy after a career in Sydney radio, first in reporting and then in management. He signed on despite having ``never heard of the company when the headhunter rang me . . . there wasn't letterhead, there wasn't a name for the business, nothing".

He had never considered pay-TV an option. ``It was always something, like most of us in Australia, something so far into the distance or (that it) would not happen in our lifetimes."

Executive optimism at Galaxy is all very well. But it is still easy to have serious doubts about the benefits of pay-TV. Aside from the clear advantage of receiving sporting events which cannot be seen on free-to-air, the experience of pay-TV in other countries is that huge profits are there to be made for operators, but for the consumer it has generally meant more rather than better."

The noted Australian writer and critic Robert Hughes delivered a lecture to the Royal Television Society in November last year, which was published in the `New York Review'. In the lecture, Hughes holds little hope for pay-TV in the US. ``I doubt that those 500 cable channels on the Infobahn are going to give us much more in the way of serious reporting on current affairs, or educational and cultural programming. Most of them will be devoted to sex talk, evangelical religion, home shopping, movies, and infinite re-runs of old TV comedies. The great beneficiary of multimedia and interactive telly will be pornography, and perhaps, as Clive James has morosely predicted, serial killers will get their own serial."

At this stage, Hughes's vision as applied to Australia seems about half-right. Sport has replaced pornography in this country as the big winner. Galaxy has advanced plans for a home-shopping channel.

And ``infinite re-runs of old TV comedies"? Here's a list of some of the programs available on Galaxy's 24-hour TV1 channel, the service's fourth channel of the eight planned, which was launched on 2 April: `BJ and the Bear', `Benson', `The A-Team', `The Jeffersons', Woody Woodpecker cartoons, `Miami Vice', `Dragnet', `TJ Hooker', `Webster', `Knight Rider', `Battlestar Gallactica', `Gimme A Break', `McHale's Navy', `The Incredible Hulk', `The Bionic Woman', `The Rockford Files', `Friday the 13th', `She Wolf of London', `Dennis the Menace' (black and white) and `Fonz and the Happy Days Gang' cartoon.

American mini-series such as `Washington Behind Closed Doors', `The Great Escape 11' and `The Executioner's Song' have also been scheduled.

``These are shows that were successful globally, not shows that just came and went," maintains Peter Press, newly-appointed general manager of Galaxy's TV1 general entertainment channel. ``It gives a new audience a chance to see them and an older audience a chance to see them again.

It is unlikely that by this stage, you're screaming ``Where do I sign?" and lunging for your credit card. But Mr Press, 50, one of the original Channel 10 executives who recently came from his role as international vice-president of Viacom, the television and movie production house, is unperturbed. ``We are re-presenting product that people want to see, some of them classics, putting them into slots that are appropriate."

``To have such a limited offering after all the hoo-hah was a bit of a let-down for people," says media analyst Bob Peters. ``Pay-TV is about recycled stuff. And we're going to get the worst of it because most of it is imported."

BUT Galaxy soldiers on. What's the feeling around the place? ``It's the same as around Channel 10 when it became the third channel in Australia in the Sixties," says Peter Press. ``It was a pioneering spirit, in there against the establishment. It's a buccaneering spirit."

There's certainly a bit of buccaneering over in sport. Several screens emit the soft green light from tennis matches from around the world. This week, the cricket and the publicity benefits of a winning Australian Test side are glowering over the room with commentators Dean Jones, Mike Coward and Michael Holding.

Rick Jemison's office features the required accoutrements of a sporting chief: cricket bat, boxing gloves, tennis balls and sporting references on the walls and filing cabinet. A former sports newspaper journalist from Adelaide, Jemison, head of Galaxy's sports channel PSN, is enjoying taking on the big boys. ``Twenty-four-hour sport it's a huge toy," he says, throwing a cricket ball up and down.

The talk around here is about the new war and which free-to-air network told Galaxy sports journalist signees they would never work at that network again. There is a catfight about sharing sports footage with free-to-air channels. Galaxy says: Why should we? Galaxy is casting the free-to-airs as dinosaurs who failed to keep up with the change in the 1990s.

Galaxy next month will launch `Red', a 24-hour music channel, programmed by Stephanie Lewis, from the ABC's late-night video-clip program, `Rage'. Lewis, well respected in music circles, will be joined by former `E-Street' actor and pop singer Toni Pearen. A roster of ``vee-jays" will be announced soon.

`Red' may be one of Galaxy's best selling points. Since the demise of `Countdown' in 1987, no pop show has succeeded, to the bitterness of a recording industry with no real vehicle for its product, and music fans, who have few outlets to hear and see new material. `Red', unlike TV1, looks as though it may have a legitimate chance of filling a vacuum and attracting subscribers.

But do we need pay-TV? ``Do we need the Holden car?" asks Mark Collier. ``Why do we have pushbikes instead of walking? It's not a matter of need, it's a matter of choice. It's a leisure item. Do we need any leisure? That's a legitimate question. Do we need game parks?

Do we need video shops? Do we need movies? Do we need television?" In 1961, American lawyer Newton Minow called television ``a vast wasteland". Thirty-three years later, Robert Hughes says American commercial TV ``teaches people to scorn complexity and to feel, not think. It has come to present society as a pagan circus of freaks, pseudo-heroes and wild morons struggling on the sand of a Colosseum without walls".

Kind of tough stuff. In between these extremes there is a whole sane world to explore. For commercial television's mutant cousin, pay-TV, the prognosis is better than Minow's dismal view. But the jury is still out. We are yet to see whether the benefits of pay-TV will add anything to our lives. Media analyst Bob Peters says pay-TV will be ``more of the same, you just have to pay for it".

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