RTL  channel started broadcasting on 2 January 1984 from VHF channel E7 (system B, colour PAL) in Luxembourg. It only had a theoretical audience of approximately 200,000 until 1988, when it moved its headquarters to Cologne, Germany; prior to this it was considered a Luxembourg-based station.

RTL, which began as the German version of Radio Luxembourg, started with a low budget, and many of the early hosts simply presented versions of their radio formats adapted for television. One early success was the quiz show Ein Tag wie kein anderer (A day like no other), in which contestants competed for a holiday.

RTL plus was famous in its early years for showing low-budget films and American programmes. In 1988, it was the second most-viewed channel.

After reunification in 1990, broadcasting was extended to the entire country. RTL moved to Cologne and received the right to broadcast on free-to-air frequencies. That same year, RTL acquired the first-run rights to the German Football First Division. Deals with Cannon and Universal Studios finally provided more high-profile films for the channel. In 2012, RTL made a deal with Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures to air films from its media library until 2016, when it switched to Universal, as Disney Channel was relaunched as a free-to-air channel competing with RTL.

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