Welcome to Sky 

11 August 2014 tbs.pm/5324

With dozens of channels on Freeview and hundreds on cable and satellite, it’s easy now to forget how small Sky was when it first started.

The original Sky from the 1980s was a single pan-European channel – Sky. It showed a mix of old programming and cheap rubbish. ITV wanted to compete and launched SuperChannel, a mix of old programming and rubbish, but with more British material. The Independent Broadcasting Authority awarded a contract for a 5 channel satellite system, won by British Satellite Broadcasting. It planned a channels called Galaxy, with old British programming; Now, with arts and documentaries; Power Station with pop; Sports, with, erm, sport; and The Movie Channel with, fairly obviously, films. But Sky’s shared satellite, Astra 1A, already had competition for many of these channels from non-Sky sources and the technology was far cheaper. Sky itself expanded to include a movie channel, a share in the EBU’s EuroSport service and Sky News, the first 24-hour news station in the UK. Before long the two were head-to-head. BSB blinked first and the services were merged with Sky’s branding and content front and centre.

From there, things continued to grow slowly. Sky encrypted its services and started charging a small fee to access the “basic” channels and a larger one for each of the “premium” services. It also found that the fee was quite elastic – as long as Sky added a new channel or two, they could put it up by a pound or more a couple of times a year without experiencing too much “churn” as viewers unsubscribed.

By 1996, Sky’s “basic” tier contained two versions of the original Sky channel – Sky-1 and Sky-2, bolstered by buying cheaply and in bulk Fox’s popular output from the US. It made a bubble with Sky Soap taking advantage of a deal that got it the Emmerdale Farm back catalogue, amongst others. With Thames Television ejected from ITV, the nostalgia of UK Gold and lifestyle of UK Living channels were added, while Viacom was eventually persuaded to encrypt MTV and launch VH-1. A deal with Granada saw the launch of the (easily forgotten) Granada Sky Broadcasting suite – Plus for old Granada/LWT shows (in some ways this lives on as ITV3 today), Men & Motors (in some ways, today’s ITV4), Talk TV which never had any talkers and a mix of shopping and lifestyle segments under the Granada Good Life banner (later to be Granada Breeze). Other channels, Nickelodeon, Paramount, Sci-fi and so forth were added, or stayed free-to-air but were advertised by Sky anyway.

With 3 sports channels, 3 movie channels and, after a lot of argument, The Disney Channel, the Sky “premium” package seems small compared to now, but very powerful, all from controlling the paywall and access to the channels.

As the millennium approached Sky was finally in profit, if not rolling in money, so the only way was up. 1998 saw BSkyB launched its digital offering, simply branded Sky Digital (after withdrawing from a terrestrial partnership originally known as OnDigital, and what a monkey that ended up being) that more than doubled the number of channels available and effectively monopolising the gatekeeping of the whole digital satellite business in the UK – and it would be another 10 years before anyone dared to challenge Sky’s satellite neo-monopoly.

…and how often is ‘there’s nothing on telly’ still heard in homes across the country?

The author would like to thank Richard Jones for his contributions to this article.

You Say

2 responses to this article

Robert Hernandez 11 August 2014 at 5:05 pm

My school got a Sky dish in 1989 when it was free. The teacher in charge of the TV room constantly referred to MTV Europe as “the Sky Music Channel”. Shows the power of Sky’s branding even then, against even MTV’s very strong self-promotion.

Roger Macmillan 11 August 2014 at 8:22 pm

“after withdrawing from a terrestrial partnership originally known as OnDigital”

Of course, one must not forget that as soon as the successor to OnDigital, ITV Digital, surrendered its digital broadcasting licences to the ITC (Independent Television Commission), BSkyB rapidly joined the BBC and Crown Castle to form the Freeview consortium to bid for the licences for the vacant multiplexes.

Once again, (as had happened in 1970 with LWT), the Murdoch dynasty came to the rescue of a commercial TV venture in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

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