Special Report on Electronic Gifts: Meteoric rise in satellite viewing despite 'sparklies': David Guest looks at the increasing array of television shows beamed from our skies at night

BY THE turn of the century, two-thirds of households in Britain will be able to watch satellite television, according to the Broadcast Audience Research Bureau.

What will they be watching? The choice is already extensive. With a fixed dish Astra unit, 32 channels are on offer. A motorised dish captures many more. One of the latest receivers to go on sale, the Mimtec Spirit, has the capacity to be upgraded for use in a motorised system but already caters for 200 channels. A 184-channel system from Discus Satellites of Dundee costs pounds 995.95.

The television listings printed in national newspapers illustrate the first problem for viewers contemplating such abundant broadcasting: as the number of channels grows, the room available to say anything about individual programmes shrinks. Eventually, as anyone who has ever used a US newspaper to discover what is on television will confirm, programme descriptions disappear entirely. At this point, it is difficult to escape the inference that the content of the programmes does not actually matter very much.

In the listings magazine Satellite and Video Today, the monthly programme schedules of 28 channels are printed. Many of the entries are cryptically short, and that's before you begin to consider what Ein Madchen Namens Dinky, Methode Victor and Viaje al Espanol might be about. If viewers are to pick programmes on the strength of their titles alone, the winner looks like Red Hot Dutch channel's offering, Night of the Living Debbies.

The possibility exists that television viewing will become a hobby - viewers will collect channels. They will also be encouraged to spend widely on accessories designed to enhance their enjoyment of their hobby. The nature of the programmes on offer seems destined to become a detail of diminishing significance.

Choice is also extended in other areas. Around satellite television, a remarkable range of extras has grown up. Thus, for couch potatoes who chafe under the requirement of watching television in a room equipped with an aerial socket, there are now boxes available to re-transmit the signals received by the dish to three different television sets anywhere in the house.

Outside the house - in a caravan, for example - portable televisions may be adorned with discreet plastic aerials that cost less than pounds 50.

Inside the house, the room that houses the television can easily be transformed into something resembling a cinema. Home cinema systems, distinguished by laser disks, sound systems and widescreen television sets, are widely promoted.

None of this will impress a television buff if reception is unsatisfactory. Satellite television has its own vocabulary, and the condition which in a normal television would be dismissed prosaically as interference is called 'the sparklies'. 'Sparklies' may be tackled by a variety of chemical solutions applied to the dish, or by installing a device which fine-tunes the angle of the dish - devices of this type may also be used to scan the heavens for more satellites.

Dish technology continues to advance. No satellite watcher will accept that size doesn't matter. The basic 60cm model may be adequate but 80cm and 90cm are not unusual and one supplier advertises a 5m unit.

Environmentally aware viewers may prefer the discreet cone style of the Revox horn, and those who live in flats are increasingly likely to be wired up to a communal dish.

The BBC's recently published strategy envisages its share of the viewing audience dropping to 20 per cent. In the light of activity in the satellite industry, that looks optimistic. It may be that the only thing that can stop the remorseless advance of satellite broadcasting is the recession.

(Photograph omitted)

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