A top an Ariane 4 rocket in the South American rain forest, the Astra IB direct-to-home satellite awaits its Feb. 21 final countdown.

If everything goes as planned, Astra IB will give Europeans 16 more tv channels. Its sister satellite, Astra 1A, beams 16 channels, including BSkyB and MTV. Yet another 16 will be available when Astra 1C is launched in 1993. A fourth bird, ID, is scheduled for 1994 launch.

Astra commercial director Koen van Driel says IB will be fully booked by the time it’s up and operational in April. “It’s not a question of if we’ll have the 16 channels leased, but rather choosing the right combination of broadcasters.” Only three broadcasters have signed up so far.

Astra is becoming Europe’s hot bird, in part because of the near-collapse of competing technology from high-powered direct broadcast satellites. In April, British Satellite Broadcasting will transfer its transmissions from its Marco Polo sat to Astra, as part of last fall’s merger between Sky and BSB.

France’s TDF 1 and 2 have experienced massive breakdowns. A third bird, Germany’s TV-Sat 1, died in space shortly after its 1988 launch.

Since the Astra project got off the ground in 1985, the privately owned firm has sought to offer a large enough cluster of programs per lingo to attract dish customers across Europe. German and English programs dominate.

Although it appears likely that Astra won’t bag its three biggest programming prizes – Disney, CNN and Canal Plus – its commercial department maintains that negotiations are underway with all three.

The three broadcasters who have signed up for IB are Premiere, the German pay-tv service partially owned by Canal Plus Bertelsmann and Leo Kirch; German pubcaster ARD; and private German channel Tele5. This means that all of Germany’s private channels will be available via the two Astra birds.

Other highly likely candidates are two startup channels owned by Luxembourg’s CLT-RTL: an all-news service and a free movie channel. At least one more U.K. broadcaster from BSB is expected to sign on. Astra 1A beams Sky One, Sky Movies, Eurosport and Sky News.

Astra plans to expand in France and Spain, per new markets director Carlo Rock. The Astra IB footprint is skewed southward to better cover southern France and the Iberian Peninsula. Rock hopes to get a French cluster of about five channels and two Spanish ones.

Troubled TDF

Rock’s task of signing the French could be made easier if France’s seemingly jinxed high-powered DBS, TDF-1-2, runs into further trouble. Already, Sports 2/3, a new French sports channel co-owned by Ghargeurs and pubcasters A-2/FR-3, has been bumped off because of damaged transponders.

However, Chargeurs president Jerome Seydoux chose to shut the channel down rather than go up on Astra, which already broadcasts two other sports services.

Possible French candidates include leading network TF-1, which is developing an all-news channel in French. Private webs La 5 and M6 also are targeted because both channels can use Astra to help boost their limited off-the-air penetration.

Luring the French aboard Astra will be particularly difficult because of political pressures applied to persuade broadcasters to stick with TDF. The biggest plum is the highly successful sports and movie pay-tv service Canal Plus, which says it’s committed to the D2Mac broadcast standard.

TDF is a high-powered DBS bird and European rules force DBSers to broadcast in DMac or D2Mac, the intermediate European HDTV standard. There fore all channels on TDF will be in D2Mac, while Astra is primarily PAL.

Astra, a medium-powered, direct-to-home satellite escapes European DMac rules, even though technically it can beam DMac. “It’s up to the client to decide what standard they want to use,” says Yves Feltes, Astra communication director. “The satellite beams back down what is beamed up to it.”

Meanwhile, the French are lobbying hard to extend the EC’s DMac requirement to medium-powered sats like Astra as well, a move that Astra’s management believe could slow down dish sales considerably.

An estimated 400,000 to 1 million dishes have been sold in Germany. In addition, the Astra channels are received in 5.57 million cable homes.

In Great Britain, where the recent Sky-BSB merger gave a tremendous boost to Astra, 1.1 million dishes have been sold as of December 1990, per Astra.

Boost in Brituan

Astra is negotiating with British and American broadcasters to add at least one more English language channel to the cluster. In addition to MTV and the four BSkyB channels, other English broadcasters already on Astra include: Lifestyle, the Children’s Channel and Screensport. The last two also broadcast in Dutch.

The Netherlands is the third leading Astra market, with 130,000 dishes. This primarily is due to the success of private network RTL-4, which also is widely available on cable.

Scandinavia has about 100,00(dishes sold, mostly in Norway and Sweden with two Scandi net works, TV3 and TV1000 available on Astra. A high proportion of Dutch and Scandinavians speak English, increasing the attractiveness of the sat services.

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