In 1990, the UK broadcasting landscape is very different to today. Most people have access to just four channels – BBC1, BBC2, the federation of regional companies which together make up ITV, and Channel 4. Change is afoot though. In March of that year British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB) launches. This is the officially licensed and UK Government sanctioned satellite service. It consists of (in fact, is legislatively and technically limited to) five channels including one which relies heavily on BBC archive material, and uses a different technical standard to terrestrial analogue’s PAL, offering superior pictures to the handful of UK televisions able to take advantage of it.
BSB limps to market late, hampered by marketing a new type of flat satellite dish, the squarial, and then having to spend months trying to develop a working model. In the meantime, outside of UK regulation, newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch has bought an obscure satellite channel called SKY Channel (a home for re-runs of American sitcoms and adventure series) which is only available in the UK to the the handful of homes at the time with access to cable television. He revamps it into a four-channel service and manages to launch before BSB, offering (among other things) new cult cartoon series The Simpsons. BSB had not expected any competition and a battle ensues which will take some time to resolve. It can count me as one of its loyal customers though, thanks to my interest in archive television. Unlike today, not much of this stuff is commercially available, and from the outset BSB offers access to lots of sixties episodes of Doctor Who. Often on ropy prints, but I am nonetheless blissfully happy,
At the same time, the British Government makes moves to deregulate the UK TV listings market. This is dominated by two publications. Radio Times (RT) is published by the BBC, and despite the title carries listings and information about BBC television, as well as radio. TV Times is published by ITV, and lists their programmes as well as Channel 4’s. These various broadcasters enjoy copyright in their listings, and so only they can publish schedules and programme details significantly in advance. Newspapers are generally restricted, apart from at weekends and public holidays, to publishing details of television on the day the programmes are broadcast. As a result of these restrictions, Radio Times and TV Times enjoy huge sales, both topping the magazine chart by shifting around three million copies each weekly. And of course people must buy both magazines in order to know what’s on all four channels.
All that is about to change. The Conservative Government is a serial de-regulator and has turned its attention to the listings market. In Spring 1991 the market will open up: the BBC will be able to list ITV and Channel 4’s programmes, and vice versa. Other competitors will be able to enter the market. For these two cosy publications, a huge time of change is looming.
By the summer of 1990 Radio Times‘ preparations are in full swing, and I see an advert offering the chance to work on the development of the new version. Steeped in television knowledge as I am, I apply, and to my delight am invited to interview. It is chaired by Listings Editor Roger Hughes, an urbane and humorous man who, I will discover, rules listings with a light, if slightly inconsistent touch. I *think* Jane Rackham, one of the senior journalists, is also on the panel (Jane is still at RT today).
I do a little test before the interview, and then remarkably feel quite relaxeds once in the room (even though I don’t regard myself as a “real” journalist). RT is feeling its way towards this brave new world and a lot of decisions have yet to be set in stone. Roger asks me if he thinks the magazine should have satellite listings. Yes, I say boldly, adding nerdishly that I have BSB at home. I make herculean efforts to show that I know my stuff.
A few days later they offer me a job in the team working on internal dummy editions. Ultimately, by creating a succession of dummies for consideration by the powers that be, we will shape what the new Radio Times will be like. In the first instance, the contract is only for three months, so it’s an indication of my desperation to get away from JBP (plus my keenness to work at the BBC) that I say yes instantly, even though I may be unemployed by Christmas as a result.
I meet with John and hand in my resignation (the second person in the course of a few days, although I can’t remember who the first person was). In the process I bequeath my tickets to San Diego to Stuart, even though I now have my Brian Keenan looalike passport. John does not plead with me heroically to stay – no doubt because he has realized that Stuart and I can never successfully work together. I give the traditional month’s notice and set to work on my final issue of Speakeasy.
Ironically, by the time of my last issue I have absolutely nailed putting this puppy together. I am close to Rian Hughes’ original design but not slavishly so. I have just got my file copy out and it looks good – better than I remember it even. So at the height of my comics news editing powers, I leave to face another challenge, which surely can’t be as hellish as the one I am leaving. In fact it isn’t, but nonetheless the next few months are turbulent ones, as RT struggles to fit into the new world order of deregulated listings …