Allan Brown discovers that while Sky Channel has

a head start, its rival BSB isn’t far behind.

As it's Feburary opening date looms ever closer. the Murdoch press have been raised to paroxysms of delights over SKY television's impending debut. Double page advert spreads are now an established feature in most ofhis major inkies. all extolling the soon-to-be-screened delights of Frank Bough and wall to wall Jameson.

Amidst all the pre-launch backslapping. however. questions are being asked as to whether next month‘s launch will see Murdoch‘s empire thrivingly expand space-wards or whether the satellite era will dawn with the entrepreneur‘s newest baby still shackled to terra-firma.

The question of hardware is one of those most often raised. With the requisite dishes still a rarity in the shops. Fleet Street media correspondents have been aiming cackles ofderision towards the poorly organised Murdoch camp. In response. sweat-browed SKY bigwigs have offerd gratis dishes to the said hacks but the proposal has been roundly rejected by those involved. all ofwhom preferred to view the new service in a manner more akin to the man in the street. In the words ofone journalist. ‘lfl haven‘t managed to buy a dish by 5th of February. I’ll just have to say so.‘

Fiona Waters. Director of Press at the fledgling channel. is quick to dispel any worries. ‘Obviously we are a television station and not an electrical manufacturer but lean definately say that dishes are beginning to go into the shops as we speak. No one is selling too hard at the moment but that‘s because there are another three weeks till we go on air. As things stand. our projections show that sales will pick up. so we don‘t really have worries about technology.‘

Fiona's words are borne out. albeit rather hesitantly. by Dixon‘s satellite consultant lan McPherson. who says that. although no dishes are in stock at the moment. things will improve as the launch date approaches: ‘We expect the first dish to come in on the 29th of this month and for the flow to start after that. For the moment. customers interested in purchasing satellite equipment are being put on a first-come priority booking scheme, because we don‘t expect a lot ofdishes to appear immediatly.‘

Another qualrn slightly closer to home concerns the quality and availability ofsatellite transmissions up here in the frozen hinterlands North of Watford.

Peter Bell is the marketing manager for British Satellite Broadcasting. SKY‘s major rival. who will start broadcasting in August

this year. As Murdoch‘s nemesis. Bell has a few things to say on what we are about to receive ‘Without doubt. SKY are focussing their attention on the South-East of England. both editorially and technologically. SKY covers all of Europe and it‘s signal station is in Luxembourg which means that. not only will viewers receive a programme schedule designed for a very diverse palate, they will also receive pictures beamed from Luxembourg rather than ones targetted specifically on Britain. This is alright ifyou live in the South. where the signal is stronger. but north of Manchester/Liverpool viewers will have to buy an 80cm dish

instead of a 60cm one.‘ Which is news to Dixons. Until SKY actually starts broadcasting, they claim. all pronouncements on satellite strength are pure guess-work. Even the research the company is at present engaged upon is yielding few answers.

As you might expect with an extra-terrestrial proposition like satellite, the aviation metaphors are coming thick and fast, with SKY likening their populist, accessible service to Boeing in comparison with the elitist and expensive Concorde-like BSB. By way of a retort, 858 are claiming their D-MAC reception system will effect a leap in broadcasting quality ‘as dramatic ofthat ofthe jet in replacing the propellor‘ with stereo sound and text transmissions coming as standard. That may be but, as [an McPherson points out, it will be impossible to video-tape BSB

programmes (thanks to it‘s digital signal) and in any case SKY carries stereo sound as standard.

The competition between SKY and 888 is bound to reach super-nova


temperatures by the time the latter hits the sky in August and. with each system using entirely different hardware (BSB will require a 30cm square dish cutely titled the ‘squariel’) patrons will be voting with their wallets.

‘The consumer mags have been telling the public to wait until [388 begins transmission before investing in hardware‘. says Bell ‘because they recognise that our system will be cheaper. smaller and simpler than SKY. On top ofthat. we broadcast only to Britain which means that everyone will receive a signal of equal quality with specifically targeted programmes.’

With BSB having recently secured first-run deals with Warners. M(.‘A. Paramount and Cannon. exclusive screening rights for the Bond series and serious consideration from both the English and Scottish football leagues it looks like they will have a strong hand when they come to play it. SKY, on the other hand. last week unveiled a light-entertainment schedule that in the words ofSunday Times editor and SKY chairman Andrew Neill approximated ‘lTV without all the public service broadcast bits‘. With only the upcoming Bruno/Tyson fight to it‘s credit. the enthusiasm so evident in the Murdoch camp of late may well be a mite premature (‘ome the fifth of February it‘s doubtful whether SKY will be the limit.

DAVID STEPHEN Alan Taylor affectionately remembers a natural.

David Stephen the naturalist, who died at the weekend, was one of the few reasons why it was worth parting with 30p for the Weekend Scotsman; unsympathetic critics might say he was the only reason. He was, like the polecats about which he often wrote, an endangered species, and like them we will rarely see his kind again in Scotland. But he was not of the cat family himself. He was a great grizzly ofa man with a headmaster‘s growl and a complexion which spoke of below zero nights at a badger‘s hide with a bottle of Scotch for company. I met him just once and I am still getting over the shock. It was at the Book Festival a few years ago. When I was asked to introduce him I jumped at the chance for l was a fan of his weekly column. I confess to not being one of nature’s animal lovers but there was something about the way David Stephen wrote that I found intoxicating. He was obviously a man who cared about his subject but he was not gin-trapped by particular factions. It‘s true he was a stirrer who often took what seemed a perverse view to those whose only experience of the ruder aspects ofwildlife is the BBC's

Natural World. But above all he was a practical man who followed his nose and drew on his experience: dry theory was not his tipple.

What drew me to him was the same reason I read cookery books by Elizabeth David or gardening books by Christopher Lloyd when I don‘t know a trowel from colander: style. Whether he knew it or not David Stephen was a superb stylist which is to say that he was a great communicator. His writing was as blunt as his speech, clean. couthy and direct. He was, as his few novels testify, a literary man.

He took my hand in his paw and when I retrieved it it was bloodless. Playing chairman I asked if there was anything he needed. I fetched whisky, an index finger‘s length. Two hundred people waited in the tent. I stood up and said nice but unnecessary things. These were the converted. David rose like a giraffe getting off its knees and said nothing but handed me a parcel in a blanket. Then he whispered, ‘I can‘t talk and carry this at the same time‘. ‘What is it?‘ I hissed. ‘A polecat‘, he said and even in the gloom with the lights low for a slide-show he must have seen me blanch. ‘Don‘t worry", he said. ‘it could have been worse, I could have brought one of the wolves.‘ You don’t forget things or men like that. J

The List 27 January 9 February 5