Julian Clover recalls the world of two decades ago and how we are on the edge of a new shift in broadcasting.
20 years ago this week, May 8 to be precise, I wandered down London’s Farringdon Road towards the offices of Radio & Music. The new magazine had hired me as a reporter in what was effectively my first paid employment as a journalist.
It was a time of tremendous change, both in radio, and the broadcasting sector as a whole. The Astra satellite, and with it Sky Television, had launched four months earlier. Radio was going through a period of massive change, AM and FM services that had historically broadcast the same programmes were being split into hits and so-called gold channels, and the regional ownership structure was pretty much still intact.
At the same time Sky was changing UK television, effectively broadcasting under licence from Luxembourg where Astra was based, it wasn’t bound by the rules of the ‘official’ British Satellite Broadcasting. Those rules, the price of movie and sports rights, and the creation of the BBC with adverts put pay to BSB’s ambitions.
Time and again British broadcasting has repeated the mistakes of the past, sometimes just by holding on for too long. The breakfast station GMTV launched with a format that had failed for TVAM some 12 years previous.
The decade that followed saw the growth of multichannel television in the UK, I watched much of it from the wrong end of the Kings Road, from the offices of the sadly-missed Cable and Satellite Europe. Television felt like it was growing in increments of 16 as Astra stacked up the satellites at 19 degrees East.
There was a strange period around 1998, Canal Plus had launched in France, but the UK was a little late. It didn’t matter, Sky Digital launched, and so did interactive television in the form of Open that would place a subsidy on the boxes, taking the price first to £200, and then free. Ten years on you’d struggle to find a set-top for more than that price.
My colleague Barry Flynn and I decided to order something from all the ‘shops’ on the Open platform. Barry found that shopping at Asda required the download of a list of items from the individual store over the 14Kbps modem. I ordered a CD and a book. The CD was there in 24-hours, the book from established retailer WH Smith took a week, in which time the CD supplier had gone out of business.
Multichannel has been replaced by multiplatform and maybe broadband TV is the new satellite. It has certainly surpassed digital, at least in potential, and will continue to do so as the young take responsibility for the settlement of the triple play bill.
We are I suspect on the edge of another shift in broadcasting, a term that itself must become defunct, the Australian telecasting perhaps becoming the new term. On demand for anything other than news and sport will surely be established. I feel a Martini moment coming on.