Tuesday, March 06, 2007

When Two Elephants Fight

According to an old Ghanaian saying: "When two elephants fight, it is only the grass which gets hurt". Wise words indeed, told to me by a law student friend whose tutor was an old (well, middle aged, Ghanaian). You'll find variations in every culture, with horses, tigers, Sumo wrestlers or giant greased buttocks substituted for elephants as appropriate. But the sentiment remains the same - it is the little people who are taken for granted and trampled underfoot when 'higher powers' clash. I was reminded of this old African adage during the recent spat between Sky and NTL Telewest (I'm sorry, but 'Virgin Media' is just a trading name, this is still the company's correct name), which has resulted in the loss of Sky One, Sky News et al from cable TV. Here the 'elephants' are Rupert Murdoch and Richard Branson (the largest single shareholder in NTL Telewest, although not the majority shareholder, despite the impression he likes to give), who are busy puffing and posturing as they engage in a colossal battle of egos. Obviously, Branson is painting himself as the 'good guy' in this fight, a position the non-Murdoch media are tending to swallow (after all 'Saint' Richard couldn't ever do anything wrong, could he?). In truth, he's just as culpable as Murdoch.

What it all boils down to is that Dickie is still sore that Murdoch's Sky effectively blocked him from bidding for ITV by taking a stake in the broadcaster itself, forcing him to settle for the consolation prize of a stake in NTL Telewest. Murdoch, of course, is out to nobble an increasingly threatening rival. The re-branded NTL Telewest might well shake off its image of poor service and unreliability to challenge Sky as a digital TV platform. Sadly, the only people being hurt, so far, are NTL Telewest customers who have now been deprived of some the channels they subscribe to. What I find fascinating is Sky's assumption that their non-premium channels are such a draw that disgruntled cable customers will immediately order a satellite dish so that they can keep up with 24 and Lost, (ignoring the fact that viewing figures for the latter have nosedived since it was poached from Channel Four).

Speaking personally, as a cable customer, I really couldn't give a toss. It just reinforces my decision to ditch cable. Not that Murdoch will be the beneficiary. Once I get a new aerial installed, I'll be making the switch to Freeview permanent (I'm currently getting pretty good reception on an indoor aerial). The fact is that most of the channels on Freeview broadcast bollocks, but at least they are free to air and I'm not paying for hundreds of channels all showing crap. In point of fact, the only channels I regularly watch on it outside of the main terrestial ones, are BBC 4, More 4 and Film Four. I just don't have time to watch all those movies and all that sport that Sky seem to think we all want. Equally, I really don't have the time or inclination to watch all those repeats on demand that NTL are offering. The fact is that I didn't bother watching most of them when they were on originally because they were shit. Guess what? They're still shit when you charge me for them!

Once I've made that switch then the crappy broadband I get from the cable company can go and the phone can go back to BT. The fact is that NTL have been crap for years - I only signed up through necessity as, pre-digital, you couldn't get decent reception for Channels Four and Five here through an aerial - and teaming up with that hairy buffoon Branson is the final straw (I've travelled on his trains). The only thing that could be said in their favour was that they weren't part of Murdoch's empire. Thankfully, I now have an alternative in the form of Freeview.



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