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25 amazing ways that Sky has changed British TV in 25 years

Sky celebrates its 25th birthday today, so here are 25 ways Sky has changed British TV, for better and for worse.

1: Satellite TV

Sky didn’t invent satellite TV (that was Sir Arthur C Clarke), but in 1989 Rupert Murdoch bet the farm on the successful launch of private European satellite operator Astra’s first spacecraft, and won big when the first four channels went on air. 

Satellite TV went from being an expensive hobby to something everyone could enjoy, and multichannel TV was no longer something restricted to the few living in a cable TV area.

2: The Simpsons

When Sky brought new American hit The Simpsons to the UK in 1990, it embodied the new broadcaster’s ability to bring the best of American TV to British screens years before it arrived on terrestrial TV. 

Like many rebellious young icons before him, Bart Simpson terrified Britain’s moral guardians and delighted 90s youngsters, while Homer Simpson became an unlikely model of modern fatherhood.

3: Sky News

Britain didn’t have its own rolling news channel Sky News arrived as one of the four launch channels (along with Sky One, Eurosport and Sky Movies), and it didn’t have a choice until BBC News 24 came along in 1997. 

Sky News surprised many by being pretty good, though some people argue that rolling news has replaced reportage with uninformed voyeurism, but when the world changes, it’s a channel many people instinctively turn to.

4: Sky+

Yes, TiVo was the UK’s first personal video recorder, but Sky+ has now become so synonymous with the ability to record TV that its celebrity brand spokespeople are asked not to use “Sky Plus” as a verb, so it doesn’t water down the trademark.

I was lucky enough to have an early Sky+ to review for What Satellite & Digital TV magazine in 2001, and it’s the first product where a friend saw it and was so impressed he ordered one for himself. After 13 years, I couldn’t live without it myself.

5: The English Premier League

It may have ushered in an era of ultra-rich prima donna football stars but the creation of the Premier League in 1992 also made English football the most popular sporting association in the world. 

Sky paid just £302 million for its exclusive first five-year Premier League contract – today Sky and BT pay £3 billion for three-year deal, and they still can’t show Saturday afternoon matches.

6: Sky Sports

The success of the Premier League’s TV money pit has tempted just about every major sport from free TV onto Sky Sports, with the exception of tiddlywinks and a few protected national treasures: rugby league, cricket, golf, darts and tennis are just a few. 

Far from just banking the cash, Sky has done its best to turn every sport into a spectacle, with onscreen stats, multi-screen viewing options, alternative commentaries, high definition and much more to make fans feel better about spending their hard-earned cash, and has raised the standard for sports broadcasting.

It also brought the UK its first dedicated sports news channel, turning transfer deadline day into a nailbiting event. And Chris Kamara.

7: Game of Thrones

Forget Joffrey Baratheon, Sky’s ten-year tie-in with America’s HBO makes it the most ruthless player in TV, signing up the fan favourite Game Of Thrones until 2020 (oh yeah, it will go on that long) as well as many other high quality US imports.

Sky Atlantic remains an exclusive treat for Sky’s own subscribers, not available via Virgin Media, TalkTalk TV or BT TV , and despite a couple of clunkers it’s a good example of Sky’s commitment to succeeding by having the best toys.

8: Freeview

Sky saw off rival ITV Digital (although it was destined to fail anyway), but it was instrumental in the creation of Freeview, and remains a shareholder today, despite contributing only Pick TV and Sky News as teasers.

The logic is simple: Sky wanted Britain to switch to digital TV, knowing it would win more subscribers along the way and helping Brits to chuck out those old analogue TV sets for shiny ones that would support new features, like HD.

9: High Definition TV

The 2006 World Cup was important for one reason: the launch of high definition TV in the UK. The BBC brought amazing coverage and Sky launched boxes which could receive it, creating a sensational change in TV quality.

The resulting platform for both free and paid HD TV created enough interest that Ofcom was forced to reverse its opposition to Freeview HD, while Sky customers were soon able to enjoy movies and US drama imports in eye-popping quality. 

10: Widescreen

If you’re more than 10 years old, then you probably saw most classic films in hacked-to-bits 4:3 instead of the original format, even though cinema screens have used widescreen since the 1950s. 

Sky put the pressure on with Sky Premier Widescreen in 1999, which gave subscribers the chance to see films in 16:9, although it wasn’t until the arrival of Sky HD that we could reliably see TV and film in a better format.

11: Surround sound

Surround sound was another cinema treat which had been denied to TV viewers, who thought themselves lucky to get stereo. Sky added Dolby Pro Logic to movies in the 1990s, enabling home cinema owners to enjoy immersive audio.

The arrival of Sky HD made it possible to add Dolby Digital, which DVD viewers had been enjoying for years. Five speakers surround you, plus a bass channel, allowing those who want it to sit at the heart of the action.

12: New Hollywood movies on TV

Blockbuster movies used to take years to arrive on TV, but Sky Movies made it possible for film fans to watch films they would have had to rent otherwise and many did, compiling obsessive VHS recording libraries of every new film that appeared on Sky Movies.

It wasn’t all good at the start, though, with Sky relying on in-flight edits because not all of the big studios had signed up or could supply TV-friendly versions. 

13: Total F1 coverage

When Sky stole F1 from under Auntie BBC’s nose, they knew they had to make it an unmissable experience for fans, particularly after the failed attempt to launch F1 Multiscreen on Sky a few years earlier.

Giving F1 its own channel has not only made it stand out from Sky’s other sports, and the channel showcases everything from pre-season testing to practice sessions and a wealth of behind-the-scenes events for those who choose to subscribe.

14: The Sky Guide

No-one had seen an electronic programme guide before Sky Digital came along in 1998; now everyone expects a button which will tell them what’s on every channel for up to a week ahead, and an app to browse it on their smartphone.

The Sky Guide has kept pace with changes, adding a mini TV screen, HD, the Sky+ Planner, On Demand and search. The next revision will put On Demand up front and centre alongside live TV, marking a step change in the way we watch. 

15: The Sky remote

Sky Digital also brought the first standard remote control design to Sky: no longer would you struggle to find the same button on different receivers. It’s a classic design which hasn’t changed much despite the addition of controls for Sky+.

It’s easy to grip, easy to read, and responsive, with no strange symbols to interpret. Unusual versions have included the flip-over keyboard for Sky’s short-lived onscreen email service, and the Union Flag edition for the Royal Wedding in 2012.

16: Sci-fi

Sky Atlantic may be winning subscribers today, but in the 1990s Sky targeted sci-fi fans hungry for their fix of favourite shows like Star Trek and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. BBC Two was a year behind, but Sky had the latest episodes almost as soon as the US, and there was no broadband for file-sharing.

Genre TV fans were even more spoiled when The Sci Fi Channel launched, although Mystery Science Theatre 3000 was the best thing on it for years. Just don’t mention Jupiter Moon.

17: Sky Go

The original Sky By Broadband launched just after the BBC’s iPlayer in January 2006, but while the Beeb was mired in a pointless inquiry to find out whether people wanted iPlayer, Sky got going.

Rebranded as Sky Player in 2008, it added live streaming to downloads, then expanded to the Xbox 360 in 2009, becoming Sky Go in 2011. It’s now widely available in iOS and Android devices, and you can even pay for a premium version.

18: Sky Broadband

When Sky bought ISP Easynet in 2006 to launch Sky Broadband, it wasn’t just a cunning way to challenge BT and Virgin Media – it was looking forward to a future when broadband and TV would go together like jam and toast.

Sky Broadband has gone from a million subscribers in 2007 to more than 5.5 million today – overhauling Virgin and pursuing BT’s 7m. Sky was the first major UK ISP to offer unlimited downloads without traffic shaping, and free WiFi thanks to its ownership of The Cloud, now Sky WiFi.

19: Amstrad

Alan Sugar may have thrown away millions on the E-m@iler phone, but that’s OK because he made millions producing affordable satellite receivers for Sky from its very early days. 

Amstrad was the only manufacturer to have receivers and dishes boxed up and ready to go when Sky launched. Sugar kept churning out Sky boxes all the way to 2007, when he sold Amstrad to Sky for £125m.

25 amazing ways that Sky has changed British TV in 25 years
Amstrad made a lot of Sky Digiboxes

20: Kay Burley

A Sky News presenter since the channel’s launch in 1989, Kay Burley developed a solid reputation as a US-style anchor, even clocking up What Satellite TV magazine’s “Most Desirable Woman on TV” readers’ poll award for three consecutive years.

Burley’s reputation has suffered in recent years, gaining a reputation for insensitivity during an interview with Peter Andre in 2010, and being branded ‘a bit dim’ on air by MP Chris Bryant, later in the same year.

21: Team Sky

Sky made another cunning investment when it sponsored the UK’s leading road cycling team in 2009, with the aim of winning the Tour de France within five years. Sky doesn’t cover the event, but gains great exposure on Channel 4 by doing so.

After an unlucky crash in 2011, Bradley Wiggins lead Team Sky to take the title in 2012, followed by team mate Chris Froome in 2013, while Sky has won plaudits by encouraging grassroots cycling through its Sky Ride events around the UK.

22: Sky 3D

More of a slow boiler than a revolution in broadcasting, Sky launched its 3D channel in 2010 as much to show its technical leadership as to keep high-end subscribers happy, and continues to create event shows like David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive, as well as showing 3D movies and key Premier League fixtures.

Millions of current TVs support 3D, but it’s unlikely the format will take off until glasses-free displays are common, which will probably arrive with cheaper 4K TVs later this decade.

23: Satellite dishes

Once derided as the must-have feature for working class homes, the ugly great white Amstrad dishes of the 1990s gave way to small, discrete black antennas in 1999.

Add that to a generation brought up with a desire for lots of channels, Sky’s increasing domination of premium content, and the middle class stigma of displaying a satellite dish has evaporated. A TV aerial? How do you cope?

24: 24

Sky took harder-than-Chuck Norris agent Jack Bauer to heart when it snapped up season two of 24 in 2002, airing seven seasons of real-time Scooby Doo plots and neocon paranoia.

Not surprisingly, Sky snapped up Keifer Sutherland’s return to the role later this year, when Jack Bauer will return to action in London, but with only 12 episodes to do 24 hours worth of torturing.

25: Look to the future

Sky didn’t put out a press alert to mark its 25th anniversary, or mention it in last week’s quarterly financial results. 

In fact, Sky doesn’t make a fuss about its birthdays at all, because that would be dwelling in the past, and as an organisation, it’s always been focused on future.

Sky doesn’t readily disclose what the future might hold, but you can expect aggressive competition with Netflix and Lovefilm, a continued drive towards new technology like 4K video, ensuring that Sky Go and Now TV are available on every screen that it’s worth developing for, and keeping its options open to offer the broadband and mobile access its customers will want.

Image: Flickr


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