TV UK, 28 November

Satellite dish snobbery runs deep on the Old Kent Road.

Dolan Cummings

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‘No satellite signal is being received.’ It has to rank up there with ‘File not found’, ‘You have insufficient funds for this transaction’ and ‘yr dmpd, asshl’ among the Top 10 electronic messages you don’t want.

This sorry story begins with me moving flats a few weeks ago. No dish, no problem. The troll who lives on the sofa quickly established himself on the new one and got on the phone to Sky, and a man came in a van. At this point, one of the neighbours introduced herself (on the intercom, mind) to announce that satellite dishes are not allowed. Not allowed? What is this – Russia? Anyway, the troll and I procrastinate in the face of such authoritarianism, and so we decided to wait for the KGB.

I mean, we’re not talking about an elegant Georgian terrace or a thatched cottage in the countryside here. This is a block of flats on the edge of London’s Aylesbury Estate where they film The Bill, for God’s sake. The thought that anybody could object on aesthetic grounds is too ridiculous to contemplate. And what other grounds could there be?

Actually I never found out. The subsequent letter from the landlord only mentioned the contract the troll had signed in my absence, which prohibits us from farting without written permission, and this pesky document kept coming up in ensuing negotiations.

Eventually they threatened to take the dish down and charge us for the privilege, and since the only counter-threat the troll could think of was to burn down the landlord’s office and eat the staff, we were forced to give in. After the Sopranos on Sunday night, then, I went out with a ladder and a bike tool and took the thing down like a thief in the night. So, ‘No satellite signal is being received’, and there is no cable in the area.

I have been left with the five terrestrial channels, with poor reception at that, and forced to reflect. It often used to be said that the number of satellite dishes in an area was a reliable index of social deprivation. In Britain, satellite TV has always been associated with the so-called underclass of uncultured oiks. (Perhaps because the unemployed are desperate for an alternative to conventional daytime TV.) Things are made worse by the fact that Sky is owned by Rupert Murdoch, the bête noir of the bien-pensant, especially in the media. Disdain for satellite TV is snobbery with moral conviction.

Things seemed to be changing with the advent of digital TV, which was embraced by broadcasters who saw it as a way to develop new interactive relationships with audiences, and vigorously backed by the government for the same reason. Sky introduced tasteful ‘minidishes’ in a bid to cash in on the new respectability of digital satellite TV. But digital terrestrial TV was a failure, with ITV Digital collapsing earlier this year. Freeview, the remaining service, is a sorry collection of channels nobody wants to pay for.

In the absence of ambitious new investment in cable or some other form of hi-tech wizardry, satellite is where it’s at. But the glamour of digital is apparently not enough to overcome the old prejudice against satellite dishes, at least not in the classy environs of the Old Kent Road. I might have to take drastic measures ahead of the new season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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