As a result, I set up Vista Satellite, to achieve the bookies deal but also with a mind on the broader satellite TV market, then still in its infancy.
I set Vista up initially with a partner (an ex-Prism colleague and friend) and learned several interesting things from this experience. He had borrowed his part of the seedcorn money from his mother and immediately became fixated on this, all his normal selling approach that had suggested him as a suitable partner just withered with the pressure of owing this money. He soon wanted out and that’s when I made my second error of judgement.
We negotiated that I would pay him back what I could afford at this start-up stage and that I would pay him the rest provided the company continued to trade. What I didn’t realise is that there are modes in which a business can still be trading while recording no real revenues as it sought re-financing. The ‘friend’ came back at me legally to pay him his money back at perhaps the worst moment, when it was his lack of staying power that had put it at risk. It’s these things that make you tougher with contracts – and partnerships!
|ASIDE: One operation I met with as my new operation was developing momentum, was run by two Anglo-French brothers who were involved in a whole raft of businesses. My meetings with one of the brothers were pretty fraught. Either I was hanging around for hours in the Georges V or Claridges for them to arrive, or driven at break-neck speed by their chauffeur through Paris to a venue. They operated cinemas and radio stations, had money, had contacts and wished to enter the satellite business.|
We had a quick lunch at the ‘Chicago Meatpackers’ in Paris when he announced he was going to the loo and left me with a piece of paper on which he wanted me to write two numbers, the first the price he would pay for my operation, and the second my annual package thereafter. Nice tactic, but he was disappointed when I handed him back the paper with nothing written on it. I explained that if I thought I would be working with him and his brother, then there would have been appropriate sums on it, but our relationship until that point had me subserviently chasing around behind him.
My PC days meant I focused first on the software – the satellite programmes. Prominent were consumer-cum-trade opportunities with Rupert Murdoch’s Sky providing channels like Prem1ere offering movies and Screen Sport, Robert Maxwell’s Group had just brought MTV to Europe with potential for bars and clubs, Ted Turner’s CNN delivered news in a manner that was perfect for hotel guests. I did the rounds to get the rights and revenue-share deals for us to be authorised to supply these services.
Hardware was still an issue, the low-power satellites then available meant we needed to install parabolic 1.8m-diameter spun-aluminium dishes. These had to withstand a Force 12 gales, that’s 120mph or ‘hurricane’ on the Beaufort Scale. The LNBs, low noise blocks, that gathered the signals at the reflected focal-point of the dish, collected the weak signals and these had to be amplified before travelling along cables to the receiver.
I wanted an exclusive product and found one, Norsat International Inc of Vancouver was the largest private satellite receiver supplier at that time and Vista signed up to become the exclusive distributor of its products for twelve European territories.
The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg was coming to our mid-term assistance. They planned through SES, Société Européenne des Satellites, to launch a series of higher-powered Astra satellites in 1988; these would have stronger signals and allow smaller dishes. It should have been no surprise that little Luxembourg was to become significant, because they originated the first cross-border radio station with English-language Radio Luxembourg from 1933, beaming it into the UK in the 1950s/60s when we all became used to it fading out in the midst of listening to our favourite records. In 1966 they launched RTL, Radio Télévision Luxembourg, which broadcast French-language television cross-border. They had all the credentials for cross-border satellite television broadcasting
|ASIDE: A Bristolian organisation became synonymous with Radio Luxembourg advertising. This was Horace Batchelor’s ‘Famous Infra-Draw Method’ for forecasting football pools. The advert declared his address as the Bristol suburb and spelt it out as K-E-Y-N-pause-S-H-A-M. Bizarrely Wikipedia records ‘He spent his last years mainly in one small room equipped with a chaise longue and two televisions, one colour, the other monochrome, rented from Granada TV Rentals’. As he died leaving under £150k we have to assume his method was not that successful, or he was profligate!|
Jane and I visited the SES Astra SA’s Luxembourg HQ in Betzdorf which was built in preparation for a forthcoming successful satellite launch. A facility broadcasting multiple channels across most of Europe could be a target for an extremist group. They therefore planned the base to be terrorist-proof, a secure compound which had a vast container of diesel buried beneath it to allow its back-up generators to run for decades under a siege.
Astra’s first attempt using an Ariane rocket (European Space Agency) in 1986 had a launch failure and the whole process was delayed until 1988. By then, in concert with an expanded Sky, Astra was set to become the big player in satellite television. Yet, it was a high-risk business with only 9 of 11 Ariane 1 rockets successfully launched, even quite recently only 90 of 94 Ariane 5 rockets have been successful.
Then the Space Shuttle Challenger in Jan-1986 broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing the crew of seven. It felt as if the West could no longer launch satellites, it had to go cap in hand to Russia for its launches.
The most recent SES launch successfully used Elon Musk’s Space-X Falcon 9, but these far from flawless too, and Musk proved himself prone to explosions too.
|ASIDE: a senior guy at Sky Prem1ere, a northerner, told a great story about when he popped home to see his family in Lancashire. He was in a flat-cap whippet-friendly local when an acquaintance asked him what he was doing down in that-London. He explained that he was booking space on a rocket launched from South America, which deliver a satellite to an orbit, defined by the sci-fi writer, Arthur C Clarke, as 22,300 miles above the equator where it would appear to remain stationary.|
That he then negotiated with Hollywood and Bollywood to distribute their films, and with the Football Association and the England & Wales Cricket Board to present their matches live. He then used a satellite farm in Greenwich to beam programmes up to the satellite, so that the guy could, with a simple black-box and dish, could sit back and watch these on his home TV. No one believed him, but that is precisely what his company was doing.
Vista had huge potential, but we needed funding and much of the first year was expended getting that in place. With advisors I hawked it around the city and they eventually connected me with a guy called Geoff Morrow, who was seeking investment into Anglo-Atlantic Entertainments Ltd, a middle-of-the-road or easy-listening record company.
Geoff with David Martin and Chris Arnold had written songs recorded by Elvis, The Carpenters, Johnny Mathis, Guys N’ Dolls, but perhaps most significantly Geoff wrote Can’t Smile Without You recorded by Barry Manilow – his PRS cheque for that song alone was highly lucrative. Geoff had negotiated a relationship with Warner Bros/Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun to produce various artists that would be the backbone of his operation.
|ASIDE: Each of Ahmet’s produced albums had sold a million copies, so Warner Bros had to ensure any new releases maintained his legend. One such deal went like this. Geoff was to produce an album for Atlantic, he would be credited as joint producer with Ahmet. The artiste was Peggie Lee and the album would be populated with her hits, some standards and several of Geoff’s compositions.|
He arrived at the studio to have Peggie say she was delighted to be working with Ahmet, who was in fact nowhere to be seen. They were in the studio for several days together, and as they were wrapping up Ahmet swept in for a few minutes to receive Peggie’s gratitude for ‘working with him’. Warner Bros ensured the album sold a million in America to maintain Ahmet’s reputation and Geoff had the overseas rights, producer’s royalty on the whole and writer’s royalty on his tracks.
Geoff and I were introduced to another guy called Ron Conquest from Arizona. He had come to the UK with a concept he called the Nostalgia Channel, the notion of a satellite channel repackaging old video material that had fallen into the public domain. For those offering a package of programming, it offered an additional channel that users could dip into. The particular benefit was that as it cost only edit-time, the charges could be kept low to beef-out a bundle offering.
Conquest seemed credible, but he turned out to be a ‘man of straw’. This came to light when I invited him to the Norsat facilities in Vancouver. He phoned from the airport to say he had arrived, but took hours to reach us. I later surmised he must have walked or hitched to us. Over the few days he was there he explained his credit cards had some issue that meant they did not work in Canada – Norsat met the costs of his hotel.
When I got back to the UK, further checking established people in the business who had met his air fare and accommodation when he was in London. We also learned the flaw in his concept was that the material he had to hand was American, not too many Brits would understand or appreciate old baseball and American football footage, they would not know the featured old-time players – or the rules as I had learned from my Mattel period (above).
We quickly dumped Conquest as Geoff and I were shoe-horned together as Vista Entertainments PLC and sought funding on the Unlisted Securities Market. We offered 3,000,000 shares of 5p at 12p to raise £360,000 before expenses and commissions. The offer was issued to close on 19Oct1987 – which would become immortalised as Black Monday as the financial markets crashed worldwide – but our underwritten placement was fully pre-subscribed, and we got our funding.
We did make some significant deals. For example, we provided a SMATV, Satellite Master Antenna Television, network at the Brighton Marina. However, a few days before our placement the ‘Great Storm of 1987’ swept 135 mph winds through the south destroying property, forestry and disrupting road and rail.
I took a phone call from the Marina first thing the next day. I fearfully waited for news of the dish being uprooted destroying property, perhaps decapitating residents. But all he reported was some ‘sparklies’ in the distributed pictures, which happens if the dish is minutely moved off-station, anything more severe and there would be no picture at all. Phew, our calculations that our dish mount could withstand 125 mph gales was vindicated.
But perhaps our best deal was with Marriott Hotels. They made us their European and Middle East preferred supplier for in-room technologies – radio, television, text, satellite, auto-checkout systems… At the time they had only a few European hotels but we installed dishes in properties in Amsterdam, Athens, Cairo, London, Paris and Vienna. They also provided a number of unforgettable experiences.
|ASIDE: At one point I attended a party back home and someone, knowing I was something of a globe-trotter, asked where I had been that week. I said Athens and Cairo and he was much impressed suggesting that I had been to two of the centres of human civilisation. |
I explained that all I had done was to go into the few hundred rooms in Athens Marriott, and all 1,200 of the rooms in Cairo Marriott to adjust their televisions. This involved an adjustment to the cable that dropped through the hotel and to the TV channels – primarily because air crews who stayed there tried to adjust the sets to get free access to pay-movie channels. This task was particularly unattractive because you are often entering occupied rooms (with a member of the security team) where the chaos and unpleasant smells were pretty dreadful.
I was invited by the European team to accompany them to Washington DC and see their systems in use over there. In particular they wanted me to see a Marriott Courtyard, as they soon planned to open these in Europe. The European team’s Chief Engineer had got to know me quite well and kept telling me that I should keep in mond that I was there to learn and that I should quietly listen rather than offer comment.
I had the tour of a ‘Courtyard’ and duly kept my counsel until the end. But then blew it by pointing to the screen and asingd if they would like me to resolve the sparklies they had on all their sets. They cautiously agreed they would, the Chief Engineer glowering at me from behind them. The tension ramped up when I asked for a saw, who was this crazy Limey? I had seen that the manager clearly did not like the look of the huge dish they were using and had planted fir trees directly in front of it. Of course this meant much of the dish was not collecting any signal. I sawed down the tress and their picture was perfect, the next day a memo was issued to all Courtyards to stop this practice. It was particularly poignant that this was DC, named for George Washington who as a child reputedly cut down a cherry tree and ‘fessed up with ‘I can’t tell a lie, Pa’. Sadly I read that this is now considered a myth, but there is no fable involved in my Washington tree-felling episode.
|ASIDE: The Marriotts were prominent Mormons, which of course made me recall the SAS-man’s tale of shoot-to-kill in South America (above). In Washington DC there is the third-largest Mormon temple, I was advised that the 18-foot tall, 2 ton ‘golden’ angel on its roof had been funded by Marriott. It portrays the angel Moroni that appeared to Joseph Smith in 1823, supplying him with the golden plates that inspired the Book of Morman. Mormons tithe 10% of their earnings to their Church, so it is well-off and well-known for amassing demographic data.|
Geoff briefly brushed me up against the music scene. For a sublime-to ridiculous example, we had Bruce Johnston, a Beach Boy on the board (who always wore shorts even in midwinter) and we launched Frankie Vaughan’s When my old wedding ring was new, promoting it to reach the giddy heights of the UK’s top 200.
We shared an accountant with Boy George. I received a number of calls from the artist himself trying to seek out the accountant. This was a period when he was narcotically challenged, crying and complaining that the accountant was robbing him.
Fun as all this was, Geoff far from focusing on the middle-of-the-road artistes outlined in our prospectus, seemed to develop a penchant for engaging unsigned bands who would lurk around our Leicester Square offices.
|ASIDE: Our Marriott contract put me at risk on several occasions. On my trip to DC with Marriott I visited their JW Marriott and went through various back areas looking at their style of cable management. Unbeknownst to me Ronald Reagan was to attend a function there that evening.|
I turned into a link corridor, devoid of doors or décor that ran for thirty feet to a T-junction. I started along the corridor when, at the far end, this enormous Alsatian or German Shepherd appeared, no lead or handler and it bared a fine set of teeth at me. I tell no lies it was much bigger than me, probably weighed more than me, its head reached the height of my chest.
I froze, trying to recall the best approach, whether to run or stay calm. While in Sweden I learned that with an elk you get behind a tree, even a sapling and wave either side of it, the elk having a small brain will walk away confused. But this dog was clearly of a higher intellect and appeared to be sizing up my throat rather than a limb. Just as I was preparing to run back the way I had come his handler arrived and resolved the situation. Once my adrenalin, which I can confirm is definitely brown in colour, had settled down, he turned out to be a sniffer-dog not one of the attack variety despite his bulk, and despite that snarl was really good-natured.
The other awkward situation was some 6,000 miles away at Cairo. I was walking across the roof, again looking for cable routes for my dish to be installed. Suddenly an armed man jumped from behind some roof structure, threw me onto the roof and held his pistol to my head. This was not quite as scary because it was now the third time I had a gun to my head – Belfast, Dhahran and now Cairo. A Gulf Arab prince was occupying the room beneath us and this was his bodyguard/mercenary. Fortunately he turned out to be British, so we could sort it out speedily and amicably.
Messing about on roofs was clearly high-risk, and not just to me. On another occasion, on the roof at Amsterdam Marriott, the installer and I had propped up the dish against the hatch we had exited. Unexpectedly someone else emerged from it and crimped the spun-aluminium 1.8m dish, we had to abort and come back with a replacement, an expensive accident at our expense.
We had agreed that the monies we had raised were prioritised for the Vista business, but I soon found the cash had all been spent or committed by Geoff as Anglo-Atlantic on unsigned bands. I could ‘read the runes’ and did not want to be involved in another receivership so extracted myself to pursue Agenda Marketing consultancies and agencies.
|ASIDE: A friend of a friend coined a sobriquet for me from this period, noting that some called me Bob and others Rob, he came up with ‘Rob Bob Satellite Sam’. Bizarrely, many years later, I met an exhibition venue manager who asked if I was Rob, Bob, Satellite Sam which stopped me dead because this was a name that had only ever been used by a handful of friends in Javea. It turned out that we had a Javea-based Scottish friend in common who had told him of the name.|