As jewels from RTÉ Archives go, I am fond of this one from the news vaults of 1986: "People in this country, in most parts of it, already have six channels," reporter Charlie Bird says to the boss of Cablelink. "Do you really believe they're interested in having more channels?"
The Cablelink guy doesn’t respond: “Six is a tiny number, Charlie, soon we will have infinite choice.” He concedes that, yes, there are six “excellent” channels and it is “difficult to speculate what that interest will be”.
That’s fair enough for 1986, when television was a magnet for snobbery and judgment and even Irish households capable of receiving BBC One, BBC Two, UTV and Channel 4 via free overspill signals didn’t always bother tuning them in.
A corporate ancestor of sorts to Virgin Media Ireland as far as Dublin cable customers are concerned, Cablelink was then 80 per cent owned by RTÉ, which is a whole other cathode ray tube of ironies. It was about to embark on an "experimental period" that, from January 1987, would see 170,000 homes in the Dublin area receive two satellite channels via the Cablelink pipe with no need to splurge on a dish.
As a child, I found this “experiment” beyond thrilling: overnight, our television possibilities increased 33 per cent.
One of those two new channels was Sky Channel. As the Ronseal-evoking Satellite Television it had spluttered into life in 1982, becoming the first non-terrestrial European television channel.
It was watched by almost nobody except Rupert Murdoch, who bought it a year later, renamed it Sky in 1984 and rebranded it Sky One in 1989, when it became part of a then four-channel network in a pay-TV market-conquering group.
But now, three years after Sky’s acquisition by US telecoms giant Comcast and 32 years after it got its name, Sky One is being retired. From September 1st, it will vanish.
Its replacement on electronic programme guides will be Sky Showcase, which Sky describes as a “linear-only main event channel that will curate a selection of the top shows from across Sky’s portfolio of entertainment brands” such as Sky Witness, Sky Arts, Sky Comedy and a second new channel, Sky Max.
“Curating” a television channel is the 21st century way of “scheduling” one. To a sharp-shouldered television executive time-travelling to 2021 from the 1980s, it wouldn’t be the only confusing verb. Sky says Sky Showcase will “hero” commissions such as the drama Wolfe, a forensic pathologist crime series by screenwriter Paul Abbott.
To the Max
As for Sky Max, it will be both a linear and on-demand brand and “the new home for Sky’s blockbuster entertainment”, including the return of original dramas A Discovery of Witches and Cobra (which revolves around a fictionalised but possibly more competent version of Westminster’s committee for national emergencies).
It will also house Never Mind the Buzzcocks, the 1990s BBC music panel game that Sky is resuscitating with Greg Davies as host.
According to Sky, both Sky Max and Sky Showcase will be available through its rivals' pay-TV services. This is not the case with Sky Atlantic, its current linear home for both its own premium dramas (Chernobyl, I Hate Suzie, Gangs of London) and the ones it receive under its content deal with WarnerMedia's HBO (Succession, Mare of Easttown, Euphoria).
Channel names are often a product of the prevailing industry backdrop. Before a second RTÉ channel arrived in 1978, RTÉ One was just RTÉ, before BBC2 (now styled BBC Two) came into the world in 1964, BBC One was just BBC TV, and before Sky News and Sky Movies, there was no need for Sky to be called Sky One.
Eventually the multichannel universe exploded so much, numbering started to seem silly again. Few new non-terrestrial channels have mixed schedules: they revolve around single genres that can be reflected in their names. Ditching Sky One effectively marks the end of an era that for Sky is already dead.
The new names also point to how Sky views the trajectory of its business. A decade ago, most broadcast groups used their on-demand functions as “catch-up” services to help market what they were offering through their linear channels. For Sky, less dependent than others on linear advertising for revenue, it has been the other way round for a while.
Calling Sky One’s replacement Sky Showcase confirms it. The linear channel is the shop window, not the till.
Sky Max, meanwhile, is inspired by the naming convention used by US-focused streamer HBO Max, the future expansion of which affects Sky. Once the current European content deal between HBO and Sky ends, HBO Max's parent company is expected to roll out a streaming service in Sky's European territories. WarnerMedia has already said HBO Max will launch in Europe later this year in markets where Sky doesn't operate.
The proposed mega-merger between WarnerMedia and Discovery Communications, which has been trying to flog its Discovery Plus app across Europe on the back of its Olympic rights, only locks in the inevitability that Sky – and its streamer Now – will be cut off from its supply of cherished HBO shows.
So the rationale for retaining the channel name Sky Atlantic will surely die too: Sky’s premium dramas, thanks to its anticipatory ramp-up in original production, will more likely be made in Hertfordshire than Hollywood. Sky Max could take its place as Sky’s “premium” brand.
However this next stage unfolds, the industry has travelled a long way since the early years when Sky Channel entered our homes with repeats of US comedies such as I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970), Three’s Company (1977-1984) and the almost new, much-loved Family Ties (1982-1989), plus the original series of Star Trek (1966-1969), stripping them across the Monday to Friday schedules.
This was the closest you could get to binge-viewing in the 1980s before video player ownership took off.
As for the second channel that Cablelink’s scepticism-triggering experimental period brought into Dublin homes, Super Channel was a portal back into the 1970s, serving up British science-fiction and other cult curiosities – Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, The Onedin Line, Tales of the Unexpected – and mixing them with music videos.
Neither as brash nor as successful as Sky, Super Channel later became NBC Europe before ending its days as a German-only network. But for a short time, as one of only eight options for Dublin cable homes, it was weird and it was great.