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25 years of Innovation: Happy Birthday Sky TV

Believe in Better - Sky+, High Definition, 3D, Catch Up Services, 4K - the list goes on

by Mark Hodgkinson Feb 5, 2014


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    25 years of Innovation: Happy Birthday Sky TV
    On this day in 1989, Sky launched its first ever TV package and the world of television has never been the same since.
    It wasn’t easy for Sky in the early days. They launched with just 4 channels to a UK public apathetic and suspicious about the idea of actually paying for what you watch, outside of the BBC license fee.

    Much of Sky’s early hopes were pinned on its unique movies channel. Costly content deals were struck for first-run access with various studios including 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Columbia Pictures Entertainment, Orion Pictures and Buena Vista Distribution but the take-up was slow and the company soon found itself in financial strife.

    A competing service, British Satellite Broadcasting, launched soon after Sky took to the airwaves and it transpired that neither could attract enough customers to sustain their respective business models. Had a 50/50 merger deal, between the two, not taken place in November 1990, both companies could have disappeared in to obscurity soon after launch.

    In fact, in view of the amalgamation, we should be terming the company British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) for correctness sake, but that’s simply not a catchy enough name and ‘Sky TV’ is how the UK public has known it, pretty much since the deal was struck.
    The merger with BSB saved Sky's bacon

    The masterstroke for Sky turned out not to be in its enviable – for the time - film catalogue but in its acquisition of the Premier League rights for the 1992-93 Season.

    The Premier League was in its early days and clearly was in no position to resist Sky’s £302m bid, which was colossal money in those days. The BBC and ITV simply couldn't compete and this left Sky Sports as the only broadcaster with live and exclusive rights for top-flight football. In doing so, Sky took it away from free-to-air television for the first time in its history.

    Sky quickly realised that the public was absolutely bonkers for the Premier League and made Sky Sports a standalone subscription option, for those not interested in its movies roster. Customer numbers started to rise rapidly and other sports were snaffled up on exclusivity deals, making Sky Sports the service of choice for sports lovers everywhere.

    It wasn’t just about what content Sky had the rights to, however, it was also how it was delivered. Dedicated channels allowed for blanket and extended coverage and its successes beget the opportunity for Sky to introduce technological advances, a world away from the days of Jimmy Hill hosting Match of the Day.
    Securing Premier League rights proved the masterstroke
    Another of the launch line-up channels, Sky News, also played its part in the company’s success story. It was the first ever, 24-hour rolling news service launched in the UK and much of its presentation style was also unique, despite the fact it took some of its cues from the BBC, with its presenters delivering the headlines to a backdrop of its working newsroom.

    Mischievously, perhaps, one of the first ever stories broadcast on Sky News was an item relating to an outbreak of Legionnaires Disease in which they managed to shoehorn in a negative reference to the BBC. Take a look below for the first ever transmission of the service and glory in the hairstyles and attire of the presenters.



    But, perhaps as important as its sporting, movies and news content, it was the hardware itself that propelled Sky TV into the public conscience as an innovator and technological leader.

    The first Sky+ Box launched in early 2002 to a public who seemingly regarded it as something possessing near magical powers. In point of fact, it wasn’t really an innovation of Sky’s making, the TiVo had been going in the USA for around three years already, but the idea of being able to effortlessly schedule your TV viewing proved a compelling one to the UK public. The ability to pause and rewind ‘live TV’ was nothing short of a revelation to many.

    Sky was also at the forefront of bringing on-demand viewing to the UK public, too. Sky Anytime launched in March 2007 with the novel idea of ‘pushing’ programming to the hard drives of the boxes, overnight, whilst most of the customers were sleeping, thus giving subscribers a broader range of content to choose from when they were in a position to sit down and do some viewing.

    That idea was built upon and in April 2010, Sky Anytime became a ‘pull’ service which, as you will have no doubt figured out, allowed customers to make their own selections, making it a ‘true’ on-demand proposition. Anytime has now grown to such an extent that huge catalogues of programming are now available at the touch of a button, although Sky does now face massive competition in the market from the likes of Netflix and Amazon.


    We also largely have Sky to thank for making our TV broadcasts watchable on our large flat-panel TVs. Sky launched its HD service in May 2006 to the pleasure of videophiles and quickly established itself as the UK’s premier HD service. To this day, it carries more high-def channels than any of the competition, including 27 of its own Sky branded HD channels.

    OK, we can have the odd moan about low bit-rates and upscaled SD content but they are, inarguably, doing more than any other broadcaster to push on with High Definition. With around 5 million customers willing to pay the extra for HD services, they are clearly doing something right.

    Sky’s pioneering continued with the launch of its 3D services. Sky’s 3D channel launched in April 2010, fittingly with a Premier League game between Manchester United and Chelsea, and despite the BBCs abdication from 3D broadcasting, continues to carry the fight. In fact, if you’re a lover of 3D and don’t want to totally rely on the odd 3D Blu-ray release proving decent, it’s about the only show in town for UK residents.
    Sky are still the leaders in HD broadcasting
    Interactive TV is also another area where Sky has been at the forefront of innovation. Together with the BBC, Sky has been working hard on delivering what we once called ‘Red Button’ services. As the name would suggest, these services allow viewers to interact with content in ways they never had before. To take a sporting example, customers can select different camera angles, access stats, view match highlights, choose between live matches and even place bets through their TV, through Sky Bet, of course.

    So what of the future? The pressing concern for Sky, is positioning itself as being a leader in the IPTV market. With the launch of its NOW TV service, for the first time Sky gave the public non-subscription access to, first, its Sports and Movies channels and then, later on, a selection of its entertainment roster, as well as some of its TV box-sets. We can argue all day that the quality isn’t up to scratch and the costs associated might seem high but, make no mistake, Sky is playing a canny game here and when the concept of TV delivery, as we know it, becomes a thing of the past and channels and programming become nothing more than an app to select from whatever device, they will be there to clean up.

    The other new area very much in our thoughts is in the delivery of Ultra HD broadcasts and streaming. Perhaps cautious from the lacklustre take-up of 3D by the public, Sky is being a little cagey on its 4K plans but we have no doubt they will launch a SKY UHD channel when they sense the time is right, i.e. when the infrastructure, equipment and, above all, content is available to make it a viable proposition. Sky has already successfully delivered its first 4K ‘broadcast’ with, again, football making history in a closed-doors transmission of a Premier League game between West Ham and Stoke in August 2013.
    They'll go with Ultra HD when the time is right

    It is perhaps with the Premier League rights where Sky will face its toughest battle, in the immediate future. BT launched its own Sports Channels in 2013 and quickly made its presence felt by securing exclusive Champions League rights for 3 years, from 2015. There have been a few to pit themselves against Sky in the sports domain – Setanta and ESPN, for example - but none, seemingly, with the will or sheer financial clout to pose a serious threat to Sky’s dominance.

    It will definitely be interesting to see how the next round of bidding goes for the PL rights as it is certainly one of, if not the, key driver in Sky picking up new customers, not only for TV but also for broadband and telephone. BT is fully aware of that and is looking to leverage its larger broadband customer base with free access to the channels for its customers.
    “We need to look at it and work with suppliers, the challenge is not in capture, but in delivery.” - Steve Smith, Director, Sky Sports Production on 4K
    Not that Sky only has Sports up its sleeve as an enticement. They are investing in new studios and are aiming to produce a broader range of programming, including much more serious forays into drama and the arts.

    Whatever the future holds for Sky, and we can see it as nothing but rosy, their presence in the market has been felt on numerous levels. Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, Sky has arguably done more than any other broadcaster to shape the landscape of how, and what, we watch on our TVs today and will continue to do so for the foreseeable.

    How has Sky impacted your entertainment world and what do you think of them – good or bad? Have your say in the comments below.

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