Although satellite TV was not new in 1988, that year marks its 'real' start – the launch of the Astra 1A satellite. Indeed, it was 20 years ago today that the satellite was launched into orbit, starting a TV revolution which continues to go from strength to strength today.
1A was the first of many Astra satellites. It carried the world's first direct-to-home services to 'small' dishes across Europe, and to the UK, where Rupert Murdoch's most excellent TV adventure was just beginning.
So to celebrate birthday of the official start of satellite TV, we present our highlights from the last 20 years.
After testing, Astra 1A starts broadcasting from 19.2°E on February 5th. The satellite carries four channels from new broadcaster, Sky Television, all broadcasting free-to-air. These were Sky One (from the original Sky Channel, broadcasting from a nearby Eutelsat satellite since 1987), Sky News, Sky Movies and Eurosport (a joint venture from Sky and the EBU (European Broadcasting Union), later dropped by Sky but still broadcasting today).
The Sky channels are accompanied by MTV, Screensport and Lifestyle from WH Smith TV, The Children's Channel (sharing with Lifestyle), and five German, two Scandinavian and two Dutch channels.
Astra's home country, Luxembourg, issues a commemorative stamp.
Sky's 'official' rival, BSB, launches its five-channel service with much fanfare in April but merges with Sky by December, and withers away. Sky sells BSB's Marcopolo satellites. Sky Movies switches to encryption and subscription (using a revolutionary card-based system) foreshadowing our pay-TV future. In a leaflet, Sky reassures us that although other channels may have to be scrambled in future, 'there will be no additional charges'…
The FA Premier League launches following the decision of clubs in the First Division to to break away from The Football League. This enables the clubs to negotiate their own TV rights, which they do with Sky - worth £304 million according to Sky. This was a deal which was to increase the fortunes of both Sky and the top flight of English football and the partnership continues today.
This is also the year when Sky starts to make a profit.
On September 1, Sky introduces Sky Multi-Channels – 13 previously free channels are scrambled under subscription, with Sky as gatekeeper. Prices are £7 per month for the 14-channel package and £20 for films and sports too, making Sky one of the most expensive broadcasters in the pay-TV World. Pirate Sky cards flourish, and Sky calls the hackers 'nothing more than common thieves'.
Lifestyle and Screensport close, Super Channel (the original Sky Channel's biggest rival) is bought by NBC, and porn channel Red Hot Dutch is banned in the UK following questions in the Houses of Parliament.
The third Astra satellite is launched, and the tiny island of Tonga makes a nice profit selling its orbital positions to big satellite operators eager for space real estate.
In the US, USSB/DirecTV start the first digital satellite network with 175 channels.
It's the year the future started. HDTV standards are agreed in the US and Kirch (Germany), Canal Plus (France) and Telepiu (Italy) pioneer digital satellite in Europe.
Sky expands its 28 analogue channels with new minority offerings (such as Sky Scottish) to turn more viewers to satellite and announces digital plans for 1997 with 150 channels, including pay-per-view – a money-making scheme trialled in analogue with a Bruno-Tyson fight that nets £5m from 660,000 PPV viewers at £15 a pop.
Astra announces a new satellite position of 28.2°E for UK digital and a fight breaks out with Eutelsat over the orbital position. A separate tiff between Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner ends with the UK Warner Channel scrapped before it's even begun.
The previous year came and went without Sky Digital, mostly because of Digibox delays, and Astra 2A is not launched until August (Astra 1D is drafted in from 19.2°E to cover). Astra and Eutelsat make peace, planning to share the spot, and the stage is set for Sky Digital.
For a while it looks like Flextech (now part of Virgin Media) and Turner would offer a rival package but they fold into the Sky Digital offering after all.
Sky Digital launches in October (beating terrestrial ONdigital) with 160 channels, £199 Digiboxes hugely subsidised by British Interactive Broadcasting, and subscriptions starting at £7/month.
Just before Sky Digital starts, The Children's Channel closes after broadcasting by satellite for 14 years.
Sky shows digital TV can do with the introduction of Sky News Active - Sky Sports broadcast the world's first interactive football coverage in 1999. The interactive service of text and video alongside the main channel service is startlingly innovative and popular. Before the year is out, interactive ventures include shopping at Harrods and multiple camera angles at a Corrs concert.
Astra 2B and 2D satellites are launched to 28.2°E to provide more capacity for what has become the world's quickest growing digital satellite market - the UK.
The Astra 2D satellite arrives on station at 28.2°E with UK-only coverage so the BBC and (after much wrangling) ITV can broadcast by satellite free-to-air. Astra 2C and Eutelsat's Eurobird 1 are launched to complete the orbital line-up for UK digital satellite.
Huge digital sales from Sky's free Digibox offer mean it can finally turn off the analogue transmissions from 19.2°E. Channels are joining Sky Digital so fast, nobody can watch them all, but fortunately, after dabbling with the TiVo PVR, Sky produces Sky+ to pause live TV and record without tape – to early and lasting acclaim.
Astra 1A is taken off active service at 19.2°E
Over 7 million customers now have a subscription to Sky.
The traditional New Year's Day concert from Vienna is broadcast across Europe by satellite in HD. Belgium company, Euro1080 decides it's time for Europe to catch up with the US, and launches its own free HD channel (encrypted from May) with receivers at £400 a time.
Everyone agrees that HDTV is great but arguments about HD screen standards continue until the year after.
Meanwhile, the BBC announces plans for a satellite version of Freeview – Freesat – so Sky quickly launches its own version.
In December, the now aged Astra 1A satellite is dispatched to a 'graveyard' orbit.
HD is here. After months of broken promises (box delays, again!), the Sky HD service starts up with a £399 box and HD versions of Sky One, Artsworld, National Geographic, Discovery, Sky Movies and Sky Sports, but BBC's HD 'test' channel is the star of the show, because it shows the World Cup and because it's free.
An alternative TV future is revealed with the launch of Sky by Broadband.
Spring sees satellite TV truly brought to the masses with the launch of Freesat – hundreds of channels, no subscription, and cheap boxes – 100,000 systems sell in five months.
There are now over 230 TV satellites orbiting the Earth and over 5,000 channels broadcasting just to Europe. By the end of the summer, around 9 million Brits subscribe to Sky, 3.7 million have Sky+ and 500,000 watch in HD.
Sadly, Sir Arthur C Clarke, the visionary who first thought up the whole idea of broadcasting from satellites, dies aged 90.