THE NINETIES have not been kind to the consumer electronics industry. None of the big three European manufacturers - Philips (the Netherlands), Thomson (France), or Nokia (Finland) - have managed to make their efforts yield a profit. And even the mighty Japanese - Sony, Toshiba, Matsushita and Pioneer - have taken a battering. One of the few bright spots has been satellite television.

One in seven UK households are now able to watch satellite television - some 3.3 million homes, according to the London-based broadcasting statistics gatherers, Continental Research. Around two and a half million use satellite dishes to access the channels. The rest are connected via cable television networks.

John Clemens, Continental Research's chairman, estimates that 500,000 to 600,000 people join the 'club' each year. At around pounds 230 for a typical starter pack of satellite receiver/decoder, dish and all the accessories, that makes an annual market of at least pounds 115m - 'Not bad for a recession,' notes Mr Clemens.

There are basically two sorts of satellite system on the market: single and multi-satellite systems. Most newcomers go for the single satellite type which starts at under pounds 200. A multi-satellite system could cost more than pounds 500 and may be above pounds 2,000 with access to all the 30-odd broadcast satellites available.

Most UK viewers are interested in just one satellite - the Luxembourg- owned Astra, host to most of the popular English and German-language stations.

The vast majority of UK viewers subscribe to Rupert Murdoch's British Sky Broadcasting's channels. When Mr Murdoch first planned his entry into satellite television he did not intend to charge a subscription, planning to support the stations through advertising revenue. But the advertising slump forced his hand and industry observers now estimate that the total revenue from advertising just reaches pounds 50m a year, while subscriptions bring in over pounds 500m.

The success of subscription has been such that those channels which have up till now been free are also looking to introduce charges. MTV Europe, UK Gold, a joint venture between the BBC and former independent television franchises Thames TVand Children's Channel (mainly cartoons), are expected later this year to become part of a subscription package which will also include Sky One and Sky News. With the possible exception of CNN International's 24- hour news service, by the end of the year the only free channels on Astra may be in German.

The prospect of losing the free channels is worrying dealers. But Mr Clemens of Continental Research is not so concerned, anticipating a number of attractive innovations.

Pay-per-view, for example, will allow viewers to pay for just those programmes that interest them - a live heavyweight world championship fight, for example. He also predicts a move towards multi-satellite as a way of satisfying viewers' appetite for variety. And that should ensure improved margins and more revenues for dealers.

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