A memorial service was held on April 15 on board HMS President, on the Victoria embankment, to celebrate the life of Andy Birchall, one of the pioneers of UK pay-TV. He died in February after an 18-month fight against a brain tumour aged 66.
Birchall began his career in the 1960s, touring European nightclubs as a DJ and writing for a fan-based magazine. He went on to work for The Argus in Brighton, and regional newspaper groups around Britain as a photojournalist and writer. His first step into new media was with Westminster press and a service for conferences and hotels called Prestel where he worked with Don Cruickshank, who later became head of Oftel and the London Stock Exchange.
Cruickshank took Birchall with him into the Television Entertainment Group a company which boasted Pearson, HBO, Columbia Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox among its original backers.
Television Entertainment Group, not to be confused with its similarly named rival Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment, which went onto launch Music Box, Premiere and The Children’s Channel onto the UK’s fledgling cable networks. While the Redifusion cable network provided a captive audience for the TEN service and Thorn EMI (Radio Rentals) had much the same for its Premiere channel, TEG’s proposed movie service was short of outlets. Thorn EMI agreed to turn the movie service into a separate entity co-owned by Thorn EMI and the TEG shareholders and Birchall was appointed as its CEO.
What actually happened was that that I started the three channels under the Thorn EMI rubric–Premiere, Music Box and Children’s Channel. In the movie sphere, Redifusion cable networks provided a captive audience for its TEN under Nick Mellersh, Thorn EMI (Radio Rentals) provided a captive audience for our Premiere and TEG’s proposed movie service was short on outlets. Thorn EMI agreed to turn the movie service only into a entity co-owned by Thorn EMI and the TEG shareholders. Birchall was appointed chief executive of the combined venture, which was then slotted into an enlarged Thorn EMI Cable Programmes entity located at 2 Stephen Street.
When British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB) won the franchise from the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) to operate the UK’s five-channel DBS service, Birchall was one of the company’s first five employees in the long lead up to its 1989 launch. As head of The Movie Channel he became involved in a bidding war against Stewart Till, now chairman and chief executive of United International Pictures, his opposite number at Sky Movies.
With money flowing from both Sky Television and BSB, the two companies merged, but before the end of 1990 Birchall had already decided to work on other projects.
In 1992 he began consulting for Simon Hochhauser, the founder of Video Networks (Homechoice), the UK’s first VOD project, working again with Tony Kelly who he had met and worked with at Television Entertainment Group and BSB. As a result Birchall and Kelly became founding shareholders, leaving in 1993 as other opportunities with the cable industry began to emerge.
It was with Kelly that Birchall formed the On Demand Group (ODG) in 1995, launching Front Row in 1998, the pioneer of cable on demand services to a still fragmented UK cable market that included Telewest, NTL, Diamond, General Cable, Bell Cablemedia, Videotron and Nynex. Two years later, they repeated the formula by launching a similar service, Mirador, for a consortium of Spanish cable operators. It was later sold to the Spanish cable association.
By January 2005 UK cable had whittled down to two and ODG launched VOD TV services and the Filmflex Movie offering on NTL and shortly afterwards Telewest. ODG was sold to software and technology company Seachange in September 2005. In 2008 ODG also sold its 33.3% stake in Filmflex to Sony and the Walt Disney Company in order to fund its expansion into Europe and the move to a new headquarters in London’s Tower Bridge Road area.
In the intervening period Birchall and Kelly had taken the ODG model to a number of other European cable markets, all looking to work in the new on demand environment.
Stepping down from ODG after the sale of Filmflex, Birchall used his new found time to indulge his many passions including writing, photography, windsurfing and sailing.
You can write your own memories of Andy Birchall in our ‘Speak Your Mind’ box at the foot of this page.