A Continuous Panorama of Pure Entertainment

Chris Hughes on the forgotten broadcaster, BSB

First published December 2006

Mike Smith strides across the sort of immaculate glass and chrome atrium that might have doubled as the backdrop for Wall Street, and turns to camera. “44%,” declares the erstwhile Radio One breakfast disc jockey, “44% is the fed-up factor. 44% say that they can never find anything that they want to watch, when they want to watch it.”

He turns and enters a lift. “Let’s go more specific. Let’s take a look at what is known as the key viewing time, that’s 6 to 11pm in the evening. How many movies less than five years old would you expect to find across a week’s viewing at that time?

“We found,” frowns Smith, as the lift smoothly ascends through the floors, “just two.”

Sport? Four hours. Music? Two hours. “Let’s go even more specific, to one evening at 10 o’clock, where you might find on BBC1, politics, Question Time, not with Sir Robin Day who has, of course, gone on to better things, as we know.” And so it goes on. “But what happens if you want some laughs? Or settle back and watch a good play? The answer is, with terrestrial television: tough.”

The alternative to this frozen televisual tundra? The company, reckons Mike, that’s about to revolutionise the way the nation watches the box. The future belongs to satellite television. 44% of you think so. Even Sir Robin Day thinks so. Welcome to 1990. Welcome to Marco Polo House. Welcome to British Satellite Broadcasting.

16 years on, BSB scarcely rates a footnote in the history of British television. Hailed at the time as the biggest British investment project of the decade, bar the Channel Tunnel, barely six months after Mike Smith had fronted that promotional film, BSB was blasted out of orbit forever.

But not before it had gambled and lost a billion pounds on Hollywood films, sports deals, Sir Robin Day and two satellites (one of them a spare) that, in November 1990, became cosmic junk overnight after its shotgun merger with Sky.

The squarial remains a curio of the early 1990s, but nobody really mourns for BSB. And that’s a shame, because the saga of British Satellite Broadcasting is one of the most extraordinary television stories of the last 30 years.

It’s a story that dates back to 1977, when Britain was allocated five new satellite broadcasting frequencies. In 1981, the government foisted two of them on a BBC naturally keen to boldly explore the new frontiers of broadcasting, but not exactly rolling in the cash needed to get such an ambitious project off the launchpad.

Blueprints were drawn up at Television Centre for a general entertainment service nebulously titled “Window on the World”, and a subscription movie channel (“Films on television less than a year old?” marvelled Radio Times) that, as Alasdair Milne helpfully explained, would be paid for “like the water rates or electricity”.

Predictably, the plans foundered on the lack of finance at a time when the Corporation was perilously hard-up. The BBC then roped in ITV and others, such as Thorn-EMI, to form something called the “Club of 21″, with the aim of finally getting British television into space.

It too failed, but in 1987 the BBC did unite with ITV and Virgin to create a pan-European satellite network called Super Channel. It lasted barely a year before being sold to an Italian family, but in retrospect, with its launch schedule of BBC classics such as Doctor Who, it was a clear forerunner of BSB’s Galaxy channel.

In the meantime, the responsibility for allocating the five British frequencies had fallen to the IBA, and in April 1986, it solicited commercial bids to operate the first three of them. In total, five consortia tendered for the franchise.

- DBS UK comprised a formidable looking partnership between Carlton, LWT, Saatchi & Saatchi, Dixons and Columbia Pictures, promising a new entertainment network, a news and sport service, and Super Channel.

- Direct Broadcasting Limited, backed by Rupert Murdoch’s News International, proposed one channel for families, another offering an improbable mix of news and films, and Sky Channel, the original European cable channel that Murdoch had bought in 1983.

- National Broadcasting Service was supported by Goldcrest Films, the “British are coming!” outfit behind Chariots of Fire and Ghandi that ultimately met the same fate as BSB. It pledged news, sport and programmes for children.

- SatUK Broadcasting, backed by those ubiquitous 1980s tycoons, Tiny Rowland and Alan Bond, proposed channels for films, entertainment and family programming.

And then there was British Satellite Broadcasting itself. The consortium initially comprised Granada, Anglia, Virgin, Pearson and Amstrad. Its plans consisted of Galaxy (“A continuous panorama of pure entertainment”), a daytime children’s service, a news and sports channel entitled Now, and a film channel called Screen.

In December 1986, BSB was awarded the 15-year franchise to run Britain’s first dedicated satellite television network. And that’s when things got really difficult.

BSB proposed to beam down its services from a satellite orbiting the earth at a height of 22,300 feet and trained on Manchester. Its subscribers were to receive their panorama of entertainment through the invention of one John Collins. Enter the squarial. Unfortunately, it didn’t work properly. And neither did the D-MAC transmission system imposed on BSB by the IBA.

But all that became the least of BSB’s troubles when, in 1988, Rupert Murdoch announced he was launching a network of film, sport, entertainment and news channels under the Sky banner, aimed at Britain but transmitted from a satellite licensed in Luxembourg. Alan Sugar had abandoned BSB, to produce the satellite dishes for Sky, and Richard Branson, wary of the escalating costs, had also pulled out.

Mindful of the reality that, regardless of programme quality, the system that got on air first would ultimately succeed, Murdoch hastily launched Sky in February 1989, at a time when BSB’s satellite hadn’t even been launched and was still struggling to sort out the problems with D-MAC and the squarial.

Sky’s threadbare schedules of ancient repeats and dubious imports rapidly became a national joke, but at least it was on the air, and broadcasting the odd genuine exclusive, such as live coverage of Frank Bruno’s bout with Mike Tyson and, this being 1989, a Bros concert from Wembley.

Meanwhile, all BSB could do was bang its drum in a succession of newspaper advertisements that rather hopefully pledged, “We’re not keeping you waiting for nothing” and extolled the virtues of the lifelike pictures generated by its D-MAC system. “Don’t worry,” smirked BSB, “Derek Jameson works for the opposition.”

Christmas 1989 came and went, with no squarials in the shops, but at least most of the technical problems had finally been ironed out. In the meantime, BSB had been busy, trying and failing to secure the exclusive rights to the Football League for the next 10 years, and lavishing hundreds of millions of pounds on film deals with Columbia-Tri-Star, Paramount-Universal and MGM/United Artists, landing blockbusters like Fatal Attraction, Rain Man and A Fish Called Wanda. Mike Smith must have been impressed.

But then, nothing but the best seemed to be the BSB maxim. Regardless of the cost. It moved into Marco Polo House, the archetypal Thameside office development of the red-braces 1980s, and proceeded to name its satellites Marco Polo after its new home, as if to imply the stately voyage of discovery through the stars BSB no doubt felt it had embarked upon.

It had ambitious plans to support home-grown film-making, funding 12 British productions, including David Puttnam’s Memphis Belle. And it struck a deal with the actors’ union Equity that enabled it to screen classic BBC serials and comedies, by promising to finance its own dramas.

BSB’s flagship drama was to be a thrice-weekly sci-fi drama, Jupiter Moon, created by William Smethurst (“There’s no little green monsters at all”), the former producer of Crossroads. It was set 60 years in the future aboard a “space polytechnic” named the Ilea, a clandestine tribute by Smethurst to the recently abolished Inner London Education Authority. Not the sort of thing you got much of in Star Trek.

But the notion of a celestial soap tied in rather neatly with the brave new world of television from space. The producers even hired British Aerospace to calculate an orrery for the actual positions of the Jovian moons in 2050, which was given to the scriptwriters to ensure total accuracy.

The Ilea itself was populated by the likes of Anna Chancellor and Lucy Benjamin, and bizarrely, a character named after Ricky Gervais, whose partner Jane Fallon was associate producer on the series.

14 months late, BSB finally launched itself in opposition to Sky on 25 March 1990. Its first presentation was the British premiere of Rocky IV. The image of two heavyweight rivals bitterly slugging it out in the hope of earning untold riches somehow seemed an appropriate one.

“We sail under the flag, you watch, we listen,” declared BSB chief executive Antony Simonds-Gooding in a stirring epistle to his first subscribers. “We look forward to providing you with information and entertainment for many years to come. Keep us up to the mark!”

It was immediately clear where the money had gone. BSB looked like a class act from day one. The idents had been commissioned from Lambie-Nairn, whose ethereal BBC1 globe, introduced the following year, was uncannily reminiscent of entertainment channel Galaxy’s billowing shadows. And though the untried D-MAC system almost killed BSB at birth, the picture quality it provided was never less than perfect.

The Galaxy schedules boasted a mix of American series such as Hill Street Blues, China Beach and Murphy Brown, and a daily entertainment magazine, 31 West, named after the position of the Marco Polo satellite and presented by Shyarma Pereira and BBC broom cupboard alumni Debbie Flint and Simon Potter.

BSB’s director of programmes John Gau had persuaded the BBC to open its archives, acquiring classics for Galaxy like The Goodies (much to the consternation of the anything-anytime trio), Porridge, Shoestring and, most notably, Doctor Who, shown one episode a week, from the start of the black-and-white Hartnell era.

Galaxy also featured a remarkable amount of what was still called alternative comedy, including the optimistically-titled I Love Keith Allen; Up Yer News, a nightly satire slot featuring a young Lee and Herring; La Triviata, a trivia-obsessed show hosted by an unknown Nick Hancock; and, of course, Heil Honey I’m Home, a one-off spoof 1950s-style sitcom about Adolf Hitler that has been seen by more people on “… from Hell” clip shows since than ever saw it the first time round.

Children’s programmes featured Cool Cube, a Saturday morning-style show, but transmitted in the afternoons, fronted by Violet Berlin and featuring sci-fi Knightmare-style games; Mix-It, a teatime slot presented by Lee Evans and Rebecca Front (if nothing else, a lot of people got their first TV break on BSB) and, in a real pester-power coup for the channel, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles twice a day.

Meanwhile, The Movie Channel screened the likes of The Living Daylights, Scandal, The Last Emperor and The Untouchables, a schedule roughly in line with BSB’s rather upmarket aura.

In 1988, BSB had been awarded the remaining two satellite frequencies by the IBA, enabling it to launch a non-stop music service, and move the sports coverage off the Now channel and on to its own dedicated network.

The Sports Channel featured an impressive portfolio of FA Cup, Italian, England and Scottish football, cricket, boxing, golf and tennis, covered by a team that included Richard Keys, Martin Tyler, Andy Gray, John Inverdale, Gary Lineker, Sue Barker and Jeff Stelling, although John Motson resisted BSB’s overtures.

The Power Station broadcast 18 hours a day of rock, pop and dance music, plus jazz, blues and country programming. In contrast to MTV and its back-to-back videos, The Power Station frequently looked more like the pages of Time Out than Smash Hits. It’s most notable now for launching the television career of Chris Evans, who fronted the breakfast show, Power Up, interacting with pre-recorded footage of himself (“Me 1! Me 2! Me 3!” et al) playing out over monitors.

And, on the unwritten law that no televisual grand projet can be launched without him, David Frost turned up on the Now channel to compère Satellite Express, one of his trademark marathon talk-ins, linking viewers in Britain with friends and relatives living behind what had been the Iron Curtain until just weeks before.

The rest of Now’s schedule was an eclectic mix of lifestyle programmes, travelogues, environmental issues and current affairs, including a round-up of news from Eastern Europe, and a nightly topical magazine, First Edition, presented by Selina Scott who, more than anyone, represented the public face of BSB. For his part, the inimitable Day chaired Now Sir Robin, a regular political talking shop.

The weekends on Now meanwhile were devoted to opera, ballet and classical music. It all seemed rather highbrow, rather Radio 3, rather Independent. Impressive, but not, perhaps, the sort of thing to get the squarials flying off the shelves at Dixons.

But at last, BSB’s marketing push could really begin. In one ad, Terry Venables and Paul Gascoigne dropped in on a family of the subscribers to watch the football, only for a succession of guests like Jason Donovan and Lenny Henry to ring the doorbell, hoping to catch a glimpse of BSB. Even Frost himself (“Got any more of those sausage rolls?”) joined the party.

Simonds-Gooding’s notion of “you watch, we listen” was a cornerstone of the BSB philosophy. The network promised to communicate with its subscribers, to act on their likes and dislikes, and involve them in the programmes. For instance, it was suggested that viewers could vote for the film they wanted to see on Christmas night, or be invited to join the football pundits on The Sports Channel. In retrospect, BSB was ahead of its time in pioneering interactive television.

There was even talk that it might be possible for subscribers to send text messages to other users’ screens via the Marcopolo satellite, enabling them to insult their school friends while they watched The Goodies.

If they actually knew anybody else with a squarial, that is.

Manufacturing difficulties ensured dishes remained in short supply, and that meant BSB was unable to recoup its considerable outlay from subscriptions and advertising.

The lengthy queue for squarials also meant frustrated potential BSB subscribers might well decide to sign up for Sky instead, while others, mindful of the financial problems both services were suffering, shied away from buying either, lest they be lumbered with the satellite equivalent of the Betamax video.

For a time, no comedian or columnist could resist a crack at BSB’s expense (“What’s the difference between BSB and BSE? You can catch BSE!”), while the financial picture got so bad that at one point BSB faced the prospect of simply repeating the entire first year of the Now channel.

The one consolation for BSB was that its bitterest rival was haemorrhaging money almost quickly as them. It clearly couldn’t go on, and yet, it was still something of a shock when, on 2 November 1990, it was announced BSB had agreed to merge with Sky. Not least to Simonds-Gooding, who hadn’t even been told about the negotiations.

They called it a merger, but it was a Sky takeover in all but name. The squarial was scrapped, and BSB subscribers promised new Sky dishes. Galaxy was annexed by Sky One, while Now’s arts programming squatted on Sky News for a few months. The Power Station closed down, but The Movie Channel and The Sports Channel, rebranded Sky Sports, lived on. Transmissions from the Marco Polo satellite were switched off on New Year’s Eve 1992.

For its billion pounds, BSB didn’t get much of a legacy in return. The occasional squarial can be still glimpsed on the side of the odd house here and there. Keys, Tyler and Gray are still on Sky Sports.

The archive status of much BSB programming is uncertain, save perhaps for its fabled Doctor Who Weekend, still floating around between collectors on 10th generation video tapes. The Marco Polo satellites are still up there, circling the Earth in a graveyard orbit. The present course of the space polytechnic Ilea remains unknown, however.

And as for Marco Polo House, that was to become home to OnDigital, another, equally disastrous bid to challenge Sky’s monopoly.

For all that, however, BSB got one thing absolutely right. The future did belong to satellite television. In time, millions of us would pay to watch films, sport, music and drama. The fed-up factor had been banished, forever.

But nobody ever bought a satellite dish to watch Sir Robin Day, and nobody ever would. Good night, and sleep well.