It is difficult to imagine that in the first year of its existence the Luxembourg Société Européenne des Satellites, the operator of the Astra satellites, had difficulty filling all 16 transponders on its first satellite.
Even the Luxembourg based German language broadcaster RTL Plus doubted whether it would be broadcast via the satellite. It had already booked transponder space on the German broadcasting satellite TV-Sat, as well as on Kopernikus, the communication satellite of the Deutsche Bundespost, and Astra was not necessary.
Only in the UK things were different: Rupert Murdoch, the newspaper publisher and owner of the pan-European cable network Sky Channel, announced that he planned with no less than four different TV channels to conquer the British public. From early 1989, they came on air: Sky One, Sky News, Sky Movies and Eurosport. In their wake followed a number of other English language programme providers: The Children’s Channel, Screensport, Lifestyle and MTV.
In Scandinavia, one party also believed in Astra: Kinnevik, also a shareholder in the satellite operator, rented two transponders, one for a commercial pan-Scandinavian station (TV3) and one, a subscription TV channel (TV1000).
Of course, its competitor FilmNet could not be left behind and also started a channel. Finally, there were two initiatives in 1989 for commercial TV stations in The Netherlands, and RTL-TV10 Véronique.
But there was still no German interest in the Astra project.
The “Astra story” had started a few years earlier in Luxembourg. In 1982, the then Prime Minister Pierre Werner mooted the idea of a Luxembourg based television satellite. Initially, the project was to be known as the Coronet, but the original US investors withdrew. After that,the Société Européenne des Satellites (SES) was established, with shareholders in several European countries, including the UK (Thames Television), Sweden (Kinnevik) and Belgium and Luxembourg (several banks).
This was also the time when a number of European countries planned their own “national” Direct Broadcasting Satellite, or DBS. France was to have the TDF, Germany its TV-Sat and the UK BSB’s Marco Polo. The original plan was to introduce a new European TV standard, named MAC, at the same time. Also, each of these satellites only had capacity for five TV channels.
On Astra, there was room for 16 channels and providers were free to choose the TV standard of their choice. Only one of the shareholders, Kinnevik, decided to proceed with the introduction of the new broadcasting standard, in the D2-MAC variation. (At this time, only three channels – TV3, TV1000 and FilmNet –transmitted in D2-MAC).
Rupert Murdoch’s decision to go for cheap and cheerful “old fashioned” PAL for his Sky Channels paved the way for success, and the failure of the MAC standard.