30th April 2012 - an end of an era...

lawhec's picture

The early hours of this coming 30th April will mark the closure of a chapter in European broadcasting, but few in Ireland will realise it and indeed you wouldn't blame them for not noticing. It'll be the final shut down of all current analogue television at 19.2 degrees east, the home of the original Astra satellite fleet.

Whereas over a decade ago most people in Ireland (and Britain) had quietly retired their analogue satellite receivers if they still had them in exchange for Sky's then brand-spanking new digital service at 28.2 degrees east, the Germans kept going with it. And for good reasons, because while satellite television in Ireland and Britain was marketed for its premium pay-tv content, things were different in Germany...

...when Astra 1A launched in the late 80's, Deutsche Telekom had been rolling out an extensive cable network in many built-up areas of the then West Germany. This was mainly to satisfy the ease of access new commercial broadcasters had to viewers with clear pictures as there were very few terrestrial allocations left that matched the powers of the public broadcasters, with the likes of RTL and Sat.1 limited to low to medium power transmissions in cities and large towns and others later on like Vox on even punier allocations. Cable was a great equaliser for these fledgling channels, and unlike most other countries these cable networks were paid by the channels to carry their broadcasts whereas in most other places it was the other way about. However there were still viewers in less populated areas where terrestrial signals and cable didn't reach. The new Astra satellite, which was at the time termed a mid-powered satellite against the high-powered DBS equivalents like Marcopolo used by BSB, suited RTL and Sat.1 down to the ground, and it meant that these two at least could now reach almost everyone in West Germany, as well as Austria, Switzerland and interestingly for the time, East Germany.

Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the eventual reunification of West and East Germany. Both RTL and Sat.1 had low-powered allocations in West Berlin (indeed Sat.1's transmitter was used part time by RIAS for TV) but reunification saw frequency allocations held by the former East Germany to be only adequate for the public broadcasters (East Germany itself only had two channels, DFF1 and DFF2), and had no cable TV build up like that in the west, limited mainly to blocks of flats. By this time Astra 1B was ready to go into orbit and other German broadcasters not yet at 19.2 east quickly realised that satellite was a quick and effective way to reach the viewers of the former East Germany, with the added benefit of reaching Western viewers as well. Suddenly satellite television became very popular in Germany, especially in the East with not only more commercial broadcasters coming on board, but also ARD. There wasn't enough room for ZDF though, they came later when Astra 1C was launched in 1993. With 1B and 1C launched, Astra was able to accommodate not only expanded German programming both public and commercial, but also for Sky's pay-TV service, Dutch commercial broadcasters, a few Scandinavian Pay-TV channels and also a small Pay-TV package for Spanish viewers.

And here lies the difference - German expansion of programming on satellite television was through free to air services while nearly everywhere else was driven by subscription television. The only pay channels in German were from Premiere in Germany and also serving Austria, and Teleclub in Switzerland. Satellite reception was now commonplace in many German households who had no interest in the likes of Premiere because vigorous competition between free to air broadcasters was enough for most viewers.

Ironically Germany was one of the first country's in Europe to have a digital pay TV package via satellite, namely DF1 but this didn't prove to be popular even when it merged with Premiere and ended up becoming bankrupt a few years later - it did leave a legacy of the DBox though.

In 1998 Sky started to concentrate on its new digital offering which quickly accelerated when in it's battle with OnDigital, they started to offer receivers free of charge. In about three years Sky had moved almost all its subscriber base over to digital away from analogue, with a new satellite position to boot, thus the investment in fronting subsidies for receivers was eased through eliminating costs of transponder rent at 19.2 east, bringing its subscribers into the same "ecozone" through its own badged receivers as opposed to no effective control on its analogue service, as well as hoping to entice subscribers to part with more money with an enlarged Box Office service and "interactive" elements with what was then titled "Open".

So what happened at 19.2 east to fill the void Sky left? Well by that stage 1A was on its last legs, 1B was ageing and becoming temperamental, and 1D was moved to 28.2 east temporarily to provide backup capacity for Sky Digital alongside 2A until 2B came along. That left a creaking 1B, 1C, 1E, 1F and 1G available. Unlike BSkyB, German broadcaster were in no general hurry to switch their analogue services off even with equivalent and additional digital services now also running and some broadcasters that were only on digital took the plunge in broadcasting analogue services as well, not to mention that vacated space was also taken up by other pay TV providers across Europe.

As time ticked along, the availability of what was on analogue TV at 19.2 east remain fairly steady with no major broadcasters becoming digital only. In terms of English language content not surprisingly there was little left. Channel 5 felt it wasn't worth remaining there after Sky had switched everyone to digital so they went, Bloomberg survived another couple of years, CNBC had a decent innings while CNN went on into 2010. Right now the only service left is the "International" version of Eurosport with English language commentary which for some sports enthusiasts in Ireland and Britain still have up to this day - or at least will until Monday morning.

Right now there is still 29 transponders still broadcasting analogue TV, and it was 32 before the end of last year when DMAX, a time-share of Nickeloden and Comedy Central, and music channel VIVA went digital only on satellite just after the New Year rang in.

So what will happen? Well some of the transponders will be immediately reconfigured for digital services - notably four of them for public broadcasters to transmit HD services. Analogue won't completely die on the spot as some of the transponders (rumoured to be 11) will carry a promo on how to upgrade to digital similar to when the French analogue TV services left 5 degrees west last November. But it will mean the end of general analogue broadcasting on Satellite not only for Germany, but also all of Europe. Gone. Kaput!

What about the receivers? Well for most viewers they'll no longer have any use as they'll receive nothing with them so they'll likely be carted off to the skip or better yet, recycled. Some TV amateurs may be able to make use of them for reception on the 23cm terrestrial band. Some receivers which have built-in extras like home cinema set ups might not be fully ripped out yet as these features can still be used with digital services. And a door stop if nothing else.

What is left for analogue satellite TV around the world? Well there's very little left. A quick look at Lyngsat reveals that there is still a fair amount of activity from Brazilian broadcasters at 70 degrees West with some odd broadcasts still dotted around on American birds but all of them are noticeably on C-Band. Does this mean that this German switch-off means the end on analogue on Ku Band?

May the memories of sparkles be with you!