Satellite Television—Is It for You?
Three out of every eight TV sets in the world are in the United States, so it is no surprise that satellite TV caught on there first. Americans love their 175 million TVs. Watching TV is their favorite leisure-time occupation. But TV addiction is not just an American problem.
Although France has only 19 million TV sets, watching TV is also the favorite leisure-time activity of the French, by an even wider margin than in the United States. In Canada, where 97.3 percent of all households own a TV, it is watched an average of 23.7 hours per week. In Japan virtually every household has a color TV. And in West Germany the favorite leisure-time activity is also watching TV.
Growing in popularity among TV viewers is satellite TV. But what is satellite TV, and what effect does it have on TV viewers?
THE scene of rural North America is changing. Winding dirt lanes still lead to aging white frame houses, but in the backyard now often stands a large dish-shaped antenna, gaping at the sky like some visitor from the 21st century. And where are the children who used to play in the country lane? Inside watching satellite TV.
The age of the dish is upon us. By early 1987 an estimated 1,600,000 satellite TV systems had been sold in the United States alone, and another 175,000 were operating in Canada. Most of these installations are in the countryside, away from regular TV signals or cable service. But satellite TV is spreading in urban areas as well.
Some 250,000 satellite TV systems were sold in the United States in 1986, at costs ranging from under $1,000 to over $5,000. In most industries that would be considered spectacular, but 1986 was actually an off year. The banner year for satellite dishes was 1985, when 625,000 systems were sold, about four out of every ten in the United States today. If you know someone with a dish, chances are it is less than two years old.
There are two basic reasons for the recent explosive growth in the home satellite TV industry—price and choice. The price of a complete system is now under $2,500, which, although not cheap, can often be financed by the dealer. But why would anybody want to spend five or ten times as much on a TV antenna as he spent on his TV? To get all those channels—over a hundred of them. The choice of programs offered via satellites far exceeds what is available on conventional TV or even on cable.
As of early 1987, there were on satellite TV 8 channels devoted to movies, 12 to sports, 10 to religion, 14 to arts and education, 6 to news and public affairs. Additionally, there were 9 channels with shop-at-home services, one weather channel, and 12 channels broadcasting in foreign languages. The National Technological University even offers courses by satellite, more than 300 of them! Radio services carried by satellites include readings for the blind and just about every type of music imaginable.
On the other hand, there are four so-called adult channels devoted to pornographic material, and other channels carry movies that people with Bible-influenced consciences find objectionable. “Innocent viewers who may have thought that seeing motion pictures and concerts at home would simply open up a pleasant new vista are discovering that, in some cases, they’re getting more than they bargained for—or want,” notes the television editor of a Los Angeles newspaper.
Free Ride Ending
1986 will be remembered as a turning point in the history of satellite TV. On January 15, 1986, the first big movie channel scrambled its signals electronically. Cable companies who retransmitted the movie by arrangement were able to decode it, but home dish owners received only a screenful of wavy lines. The free ride was ending. By 1987, 36 more channels had followed suit—including the major movie channels and readings for the blind. Ironically, only one of the pornographic channels had scrambled.
After scrambling became a fact of life, home dish owners were given the opportunity to purchase or lease machines that would decode their signals from space. The most popular such device costs about as much as a color TV and will unscramble 15 of the 37 “dark” channels. The catch is that the device only works as long as a monthly subscription fee is paid for each channel. These fees can add up. In fact, if a dish owner wishes to unscramble all his channels, it could cost as much as $1,000 per year in fees! And this does not include the purchase or rental of the various descramblers needed. Dish owners are hoping that competition and multichannel descrambling packages will bring these costs down, but clearly, the good old days are over for them. The price of satellite TV is going up—and the choices are going down.
“I, like most dish owners, have no access to cable TV,” wrote a Louisiana man. “I wish I did: then I would not have had to pay so much for my satellite receiver! Cable subscribers have only to pay a small security deposit for their converter to receive cable TV, and then pay extra for additional services. I had to buy a satellite receiver and soon will have to buy a descrambler that will most likely be outdated by the time I receive it. Then I’ll have to junk it to get a new descrambler.”
Indeed, scrambling is probably the main cause of the drop in sales of satellite systems in 1986. Why spend all that money on a dish without knowing what it will cost to use it a year from now or what you will be able to see? The satellite TV hardware producers are praising the new fee-based descramblers as a sort of peace treaty between dish owners and programmers or channel owners, but that praise has a hollow sound.
The fact is, black-box descramblers are in the works that can illegally bypass the monthly fee. Thus, the January 1987 issue of STV magazine, a U.S. journal earmarked for satellite TV watchers, notes: “We [dish owners] will be demoted to the status of thieves and pirates, terms we worked so hard to eliminate.”
Is It Worth It?
Perhaps you live in a rural area and cannot get clear TV reception or cable service. Maybe you are offended by what you believe are mindless programs offered on network TV and yearn for a wider choice. But before you invest in a home satellite TV system, you might wish to consider its hidden costs and its uncertain future.
You may have considered these matters. And you may be prepared to spend well over a thousand dollars on a satellite dish and related equipment. You have braced yourself to pay monthly fees for unscrambled channels you wish to see. You are also willing to erect the dish—generally from eight to ten feet (2.4 to 3 m) in diameter—in your yard. You further understand that, no matter what satellite system you buy, it’s eventually going to need service. In addition, you are prepared to deal with damage from wind, ice, and even lightning. You understand the dangers of immoral programming on satellites and have purchased a device to lock out the bad channels.
However, there is another vital consideration. Ask yourself, ‘Do I really have the time to view additional programs, or will they steal time from wiser pursuits, such as reading upbuilding literature, acquiring useful skills, and helping people in need?’
Twenty-five years ago, Robert M. Hutchins, a well-known U.S. educator, observed: “In my lifetime, the working week has been cut by a third and the working life has been shortened at both ends by the prohibition of child labor, the prolongation of education, and the provisions for retirement. But the time thus set free has been transferred, with almost mathematical exactitude, to the television set. . . . We can’t say that we are making intelligent use of the free time we have now.”
In 1963 when Mr. Hutchins wrote those words, the very first synchronous communications satellite, Syncom 2, had just been launched. The following year, Syncom 3 would transmit for the first time from a geostationary orbit an international TV signal. This was from the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics to the United States. These satellites were the ancestors of the scores of very sophisticated instruments currently in geostationary orbits 22,300 miles (35,900 km) overhead. The technological advances since 1963 have been impressive, but are we using our spare time any more wisely?
Our TVs have more channels, but are we using them—or are they using us? Who really is in control?
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How Satellite TV Works
A satellite TV program begins like any other TV program—in a television studio. This studio is equipped with a large dish that can send the studio signal to a satellite overhead. This is the uplink.
The satellite receiving the signal is located in a very special area of the sky called the Clarke belt, about 22,300 miles above the equator. You likely know that the farther a satellite is from the earth, the longer it takes to go around its orbit. Satellites only a few hundred miles up can orbit the earth in 90 minutes or so, but a satellite located 22,300 miles up takes 24 hours to go around the earth. Since the earth itself rotates every 24 hours, the satellite appears to hang motionless in space. Such an orbit is said to be geostationary, or synchronous. It is as if the satellite were at the top of a relay tower 22,300 miles high, except that there is no tower.
The satellite’s job is to relay the TV signal back to earth. The relayed (downlink) signal is at a slightly lower frequency and is much less powerful than the uplink. In fact, most satellites transmit with only about 5 to 12 watts of power per channel—much less than an ordinary light bulb would use. Yet this weak signal is spread out—in most cases—over the entire continental United States.
How can such a faint signal ever be detected below? By means of a special dish called a parabolic antenna, designed to focus all the signals falling onto it, concentrating them at a single point much the same way a magnifying glass intensifies the sun’s rays. Really, this device is a backyard adaptation of the sophisticated radio telescopes that scientists use to examine distant galaxies. The signal is gathered by a small device called a feed horn. From here the signal is further amplified, and the frequency is lowered so that it can be sent by wires to the TV.
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A Satellite TV Chronology
1945—Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke proposes that a satellite located 22,300 miles above the equator would from earth appear to hang motionless in the sky and could be used to relay signals broadcast from earth.
1954—U.S. Navy engineers experiment with bouncing radio signals off the moon. Voice signals are eventually transmitted between Washington, D.C., and Hawaii via the moon.
1955—U.S. engineer J. R. Pierce analyzes a number of satellite relay systems in an influential paper that showed that very small broadcast power would serve for transoceanic communications using satellites.
1960—Echo, an aluminum-coated balloon 100 feet (30 m) in diameter is put into orbit and used to relay radio signals.
1963—Syncom 2 becomes the first communications satellite to attain a synchronous orbit in what is now called the Clarke belt, 22,300 miles above the equator.
1964—Syncom 3 relays the first transpacific TV signal from space; 11 countries agree to form a global communications system—Intelsat.
1965—Intelsat 1 is launched, with only one transponder, capable of relaying one TV channel or 240 telephone conversations at once; the Soviet Union begins to launch its Molniya series of satellites, which are not geostationary but have orbits allowing them to transmit signals to regions in the northern U.S.S.R. that cannot receive signals from satellites in orbit over the equator.
1975—The first satellite-delivered cable TV service begins.
1982—Home satellite TV industry emerges.