Vision excess

Barney Ronay considers the way that a piece of squat, ugly technology, once a source of condescension, changed English football

Desperate times call for desperate publicity stunts. In 1990, with the battle for control of the skies be­tween BSB and Sky TV at its most feverish, camera-shy media mogul Rupert Murdoch took the unusual step of paying a surprise visit to the home of Sky’s millionth UK subscriber. Awkwardly posed in raincoat and inch-thick specs, Murdoch smiled for the cameras with an arm around the shoulders of his hosts, a family of five torn from their expensively assembled tea-time viewing to stand outside in the cold next to a laconic billionaire.

Oddly, Murdoch’s unlikely piece of doorstepping prefigures the frequent deus ex machina appearances of The Simpsons’ Mr Burns in the cartoon that ul­timately, along with football, would secure the survival of Sky’s television service. However, the most significant presence at Murdoch’s day out with the Cratchitts remains the large, round object cradled lovingly under his other arm. The satellite dish looks suitably bashful. Monstrously proportioned, gleaming white and em­blazoned with the words “thanks a million”, the dish also manages to obscure most of the lucky mil­lionth family. This is fitting: over the next 13 years the satellite dish would become the central component in the transformation of football. Players, supporters, clubs and competitions have all found themselves re­fracted, magnified and distorted through its shiny con­cave surface. Recently Sky announced that it had sign­ed up its seven millionth subscriber.

The dish has reacted to its success in the way of most celebrities: with a makeover. Now a svelte, gun-metal grey size eight and almost unrecognisable from the stuttering wanna­be goosed for the cameras by Mr Murdoch, the dish remains central to the most rapid of English football’s many revolutions.

In 1979 Harold Wilson warned that the UK was about to be struck by “a foreign cultural invasion through the satellite”. In fact it would be seven years before the battle began in earnest, when a newly formed company called British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB) secured the right to run five as-yet-unused domestic satellite frequencies. Within two years Murdoch had announced his intention to begin broadcasting his own unlicensed Sky service from the Luxembourg-based Astra satellite, transmitting on the widely disregarded Pal system, which allowed Sky to overcome reservations that Astra broadcasts would require an unmanageably huge dish in order to be received in the UK.

BSB fought back, spending heavily on programming but crucially stopping just short of acquiring the rights to screen the Football League. By November 1990, with both companies losing huge amounts of money – Sky’s £10 million weekly shortfall threatened the future of the entire News International operation – the two companies decided to cut their losses and merge to form British Sky Broadcasting, or BSkyB. Or, eventually, as a brand just Sky. In the event most BSB staff lost their jobs, the Sky dish prevailed and nearly all of BSB’s programming was dropped.

Football and the newly launched Sky Sports chan­nel were key to BSkyB’s survival, although with a  line-up comprising cast-offs from (the temporarily defunct) Eurosport and a handful of FA Cup matches, it was clear Sky had its eye on a larger footballing prize. Nevertheless its influence was already being felt, even by those without a three-foot wide chunk of heavy metal screwed to the side of their house. By February 1991, after the first significant rash of TV-scheduled fixture switches had angered Liverpool and Manchester United supporters, the Independent felt moved to exclaim: “The time has come to ask who runs English football: the game’s authorities or the TV stations?”

For the Premier League and its nascent romance with satellite hardware, the big deal arrived in May 1992. Amstrad owner Alan Sugar’s role in the seminal meeting of Premier League chairman at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London on May 18 that year is hard to overstate. Faced with rival bids from ITV and BSkyB, the chairmen were meeting to vote on the destination of the new Premiership TV rights deal. On the morn­ing of the meeting Sugar, in his capacity as Spurs chairman, was supplied with a sealed envelope con­taining the substance of ITV’s offer. Swiftly don­ning his Am­strad hat, Sugar immediately phoned BSkyB executive Sam Chisholm from the lobby of the hotel to leak details of the £262m bid.

Witnesses are said to have overheard an excitable Sugar instructing Chisholm to “blow them out of the water”. Why would Sugar do such a thing? Amstrad, under his guidance, were the main suppliers of dishes to BSkyB. Chisholm duly provided his counter-bid and in a moment of laughable propriety the Spurs chairman then offered not to vote on the deal, although it was subsequently agreed that he could do so. The Sky bid was accepted by 14 votes to six, Sugar’s vote proving crucial in com­pleting the required two-thirds majority. Amstrad’s share price jumped by £7m on an­nouncement of completion of the deal. A venture founded in football’s urge to gorge itself on the TV revenue stream of satellite broadcasting; given shape by the self-serving machinations of a dish mogul with a foot in both camps; and destined to mortgage itself utterly to the demands and rewards of the schedulers: the Premiership launched three months later.

Soon Sky’s hardware would become a modern ur­ban phenomenon. Across inner cities the dishes spread like a fungus on the side of tower blocks and hung like inverted birdbaths from the stone cladding of the suburban villa. Football’s booming popularity would service the monstrous expansion in Sky’s audience during the 1990s. Sky Sports 2 was launched in 1994 followed by Sky Sports 3 two years later and BSkyB currently claims to have “more than 17 million viewers in seven million households”. Despite the ham-fisted demise of ITV Digital and the generally slow uptake of digital subscription services, the government is plan­ning to switch off analogue terrestrial in 2010. Victory for the dish – and the revolutionary symbiosis between subscription TV and British foot­ball – is almost complete.

At the same time, beyond the technical innovations and trailblazing corporate production style, Sky’s cov­erage began to change the game fundamentally. Foot­ball was once an almost entirely inclusive activity. Watching a match involved seeking it out, braving crowds, negotiating various random and possibly unpleasant elements. Refracted through the continual access of the dish, the game now divides and alienates: watch it from your armchair, select your match, your camera view, your highlights package. The dish is the tool with which football, for millions of people, has been remade as a solitary experience. Television is not entirely to blame for this. A ticket to watch Queens Park Rangers in the Second Division now costs between £13 and £18, while a seat at Stamford Bridge retails at up to £40. If prices had kept in pace with inflation since 1991 the cheapest tickets to watch a match in any division would cost between £5 and £8. Little wonder the supporter unable to meet these prices chooses in­stead a whole month’s subscription to Sky.

There is, of course, the ghastly bonhomie of the football pub, another satellite phenomenon. The technology was even un­expectedly subverted when Norwegian live satellite feeds picked up by English pubs provided live pirate broadcasts of 3 o’clock kick-offs on a Saturday afternoon. This loophole was swiftly stamped on by the Premier League and Sky, who had embraced the public screening of its sports services in pubs as part of its marketing campaign, but had no desire to allow landlords to show matches they hadn’t paid for or divert potential subscribers.

Only 15 years into its lifetime, an Australian-owned tabloid-style TV service, broadcast via an un­licensed Luxembourg satellite, has utterly transformed the national game. Occasionally, among the mini-dishes and cable boxes that are now a standard British architectural folly, a few of the original white soup plate-shaped dishes remain rusting on their moorings, relics of the commercial football war of the early 1990s and, if we need one, something of a smoking gun. The game remains supremely vulnerable to the greed of a few individuals when the most profound transformation in its history has its roots in the cynical manoeuvres of a low-tech hardware retailer, the dubious screen presence of Richard Keys and the most visible application of space travel technology to emerge since man walked on the moon: the satellite dish.

From WSC 203 January 2004. What was happening this month

Comments (1)
Comment by jonmid 2011-07-20 19:02:01

Ironically both have now fallen out