The success of the Astra satellite system was far from guaranteed. Julian Clover reports
Luxembourg, the country that brought us The Ovaltinies and Horace Batchelor, has been at the forefront of developments in direct-to-home satellite broadcasting for over 20 years. SES Astra, which has just announced the launch details for Astra 1L, once had but a single 16-transponder satellite.
This week members of the Broadcasting and Satellite Network (the UK affiliate of the SSPI) paid a visit to the Grand Duchy and were given a trip down memory lane by Marcus Bicknell, commercial director at SES between 1986 and 1990, when those first steps were made. Bicknell is now an independent director of SES, which has dropped the ‘Global’ tag, following the recent reorganisation of GE’s holding in the company.
RTL had broadcast Radio Luxembourg out of the country since the 1920s, a generation of schoolchildren singing the refrain of The Ovaltinies, before in later years sending their £2 postal order for Horace Batchelor’s foolproof plan to win the football pools to an address in K-E-Y-N-S-H-A-M. RTL, though now predominantly German owned, remains a key part of Luxembourg’s broadcasting landscape.
Bicknell reminded us that not everyone was in favour of Luxembourg renewing its interest in new broadcast technologies. Thames Television, the only ITV company not to have invested in Super Channel, very nearly turned down Astra as well. When Thames chief executive Richard Dunn was preparing to turn his back on the investment, Luxembourg prime minister Jacques Santer met him at the top of the Chateau de Betzdorf with a glass of champagne. After five years of investment, Thames was able to turn the £5 million investment into a £175m return, but at a price. Thames was to lose its London ITV licence in the conservative government’s 1991 auction of ITV franchises. Bicknell believes it to be more than a coincidence. The administrations of UK, France and Germany were all against the small European nation’s plan for a pan-European satellite system, preferring to focus on their own domestic systems.
Santer almost literally bet the farm on the success of the Astra system. Rupert Murdoch was persuaded to launch his four-channel Sky TV service on the satellite and, after a considerable wait the German broadcasters RTL, Sat 1 and Pro7 put in an appearance. Installations, which had initially lagged behind industry predictions, surpassed ten million in 1992.
Today there are 47.2 million DTH homes pointed at the Astra satellite system and the dilapidated Chateau that was provided by the Grand Duke of Luxembourg is gleaming with technology. Horace Batchelor must be looking on with pride.