Mirrors in the Sky: the Story of Direct-to-Home Satellite Television in Britain

An exhibition curated by Iain Logie Baird, Curator of Television, National Media Museum. Page created 2011, revised 27 February 2021.


This exhibition (installed at the National Media Museum in Bradford, West Yorkshire, England, from 2010–2011) examined the reception of satellite TV in the British home, from its origins in the late 1970s to the present, marking 20 years since the launch of Sky.

Sponsored by Pace Microtechnology, the idea came about due to a desire to effectively represent and showcase the National Media Museum's nationally significant satellite television collection for audiences, combined with the sponsor's background as a well-known British satellite receiver manufacturer for Sky and others. With over £1 billion invested, satellite TV was the media story of the 1980s.

An aggressive strategy of targeted acquisitions and loans was followed to capture the story of satellite TV's entry into the British home. Along the way, new partnerships were established with organisations such as BSkyB, TVARK, 'The Dish Doctor', What Satellite? magazine, and Suzanne Franks, Professor of Journalism at City University London's Department of Journalism.

The three key messages for visitors were:

To Learn about the two sides involved in the billion pound satellite TV war waged in the late 1980s.

To Experience the extraordinary social impact and influence of this powerful new medium.

To Explore the space age technologies that quickly became household items.

The exhibit was located in 'Evolve', a temporary exhibition space in the centre of Experience TV the National Media Museum's £3 million permanent gallery (2006–2016) exploring the past, present and future of television production and reception technology, and the history of television programmes.

Images of the Exhibition


Objects included BSB's original D-MAC encoder for Movie Channel, Philips Eureka Prototype HD-MAC television receiver, ten satellite receivers of different eras, including the first BSB and Sky receivers, Pace's latest satellite receiver, Le Cube designed for Canal+. A mint condition 1989 AMSTRAD dish materialised, the first Sky dish available, made by a Birmingham dustbin lid manufacturer! Of course, the exhibition would not be complete without BSB's infamous 'squarial'.

A large amount of rare paper artefacts were donated by generous friends at TVARK when they found out about the exhibition, including the first Sky sales brochure ever circulated, the first BSB brochures, the first programme guides, and a signed letter from BSB's flamboyant CEO Anthony Simonds-Gooding. BSB was a pioneer in customer surveys, and one of their original questionnaires was acquired as well. Even the BSB Christmas card, circulated to all BSB subscribers, was featured.

An original tube of 'Marcopolo mints' (that so outraged BSB's financial officer) was acquired too late to feature in the display, but one of the rarest objects found. These were given out in lieu of change-of-address cards to Marcopolo House in 1990 after BSB moved out of 'a very unpleasant part of the IBA building'. In their own small way, the mints are exemplary of what critics described as BSB’s ‘gold-plated best-of-everything approach’.


The touch-screen console in the exhibition contained a range of relevant content in easy-to navigate-categories. Once a selection was made on the touch-screen, the corresponding video appeared on a mock-up of a 1989 analogue television set.

It had the effect of engaging visitors in the space for a longer duration of time, even if they were not the ones choosing the material to be screened.

If I had a chance to do it again I would move this interactive into a theatre setting where visitors could sit down. We were fortunate in being able to locate a great deal of high quality content, enough to do a documentary film had we wished to.

Contemporary Adverts

Advertising is the most powerful cultural indicator of the 20th century because it occupies the interval between the means of production and the means of consumption. These representative adverts from the two competing British satellite broadcasters illustrate their constrasting approaches to marketing their product.

Sky 'Suddenly TV is looking up' advert, 1989

BSB advert, 1990, including Terry Venables, Paul Gascoigne, Lenny Henry, Jason Donovan, David Frost and Christopher Reeve.

MTV Music Videos

The inclusion of popular satellite-themed music videos captured the essence of the MTV generation. MTV was essentially a product of the satellite medium, and videos were chosen that documented contemporary artists' responses to the change in perception created by satellite technology. The videos helped the technology-based exhibition appeal to a younger age group, and bridged the generation gap since MTV resonated with both today's teens and their parents.

M.A.R.R.S. 'Pump Up the Volume', 1987

'The satellite medium encloses the Earth in a man-made environment which ends "Nature" and turns the globe into a repertory theater to be programmed.'—Marshall McLuhan, Professor of English Literature and author of The Global Village, 1970.

Snap 'Rhythm is a Dancer', 1992

'Give me a lever and I will move the world.'—Aristotle (384 BC–322 BC), Greek philosopher.

ELO (Electric Light Orchestra) 'Calling America', 1986 [In addition, I would have liked to have included this video]

'A satellite has no conscience.'—Edward R. Murrow (1908–1965), American broadcast journalist and war correspondent.

Academic Paper

The research for this exhibition was re-purposed toward an academic paper entitled 'Wise After the Event: British Satellite Broadcasting' presented at the prestigious McLuhan100: Then | Now | Next international conference held at the University of Toronto, Canada, 7–10 November 2011.

The paper was well-received. It led to new international contacts and increased the potential for future international academic collaborations.

Future Exhibitions

This material is available to enhance a future refurbished or revised permanent NMeM television gallery. Certain acquistions made for this display went into Information Age, the new £16 million gallery at the London Science Museum that opened in 2014.