Celebrating 20 years of UK satellite TV

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.