Satellite Television

The back-yard earth-station movement has expanded beyond its early base of ham-radio operators and electronics tinkerers to include people in remote areas for whom good reception is the goal and suburban families who just want to watch a lot of TV


“SPAGE IS UPON US—THE AGE OF SPACE,” DAVID O. Woodbury wrote in 1958. Making up words and getting people to use them is harder than many people believe. For every Koreagate or maxiskirt that dances on the tongues of Americans, there are dozens if not millions of neologisms that no one ever uses.

A disproportionate number of these unused words seem to have been coined by Woodbury. Polycom. Astrogation. Rockoon. Plorb. He used them in a book about the coming age of satellites. “Plorb is short for 'Placing artificial moons in orbits,’” he explained. “An inelegant word, perhaps, with a certain similarity to ‘Plop!,’ which many pessimistic people fear is exactly what the satellite is going to do.” Just before the book went to press, the Soviets launched the earth’s first artificial satellite, and Woodbury discovered with bitter indignation that his entire manuscript was in the wrong tense. Describing himself as “a victim of Russian propaganda,” he hastily composed a second preface, in which he referred to Sputnik as “little,” “fat,” and “this unwelcome surprise” and suggested that the pioneering Soviet space vehicle be renamed Propnik, as it has not been called ever since.

A few chapters later Woodbury fixed his gaze on the distant future. As many as thirty years might pass, he speculated, before it would be possible to crash a small satellite into the moon “and perhaps send back a flash of light.” Nonetheless, he believed that space travel was just around the corner. “People who are teen-agers now will no doubt live to take space weekends, say at some Martian beach,” he declared. As to more-workaday uses to which space might be put, Woodbury was skeptical. He noted that a few ambitious visionaries had suggested using satellites to transmit television signals, but he doubted that this would come to pass. He wrote, “It is difficult to see how television, as we know it at present, could justify such unrelenting saturation as this might bring about, or the cost.”

Today scientists understand that Woodbury was completely wrong about everything. They are quite certain not only that the teenagers of 1957 will never vacation on Martian beaches but also that there are no Martian beaches. The true practical value of space has turned out to include precisely the sort of telecommunication that Woodbury thought was more outlandish than holiday jaunts around the solar system.

The transmission of television and other signals by satellite has become a technological commonplace. Communications satellites now ring the globe. They have made possible improved navigation and flight control, worldwade high-speed data transmission, business teleconferencing, and increased telephone service. (The annoying little delay in most international and many domestic phone calls is the time it takes a microwave, traveling at the speed of light, to zip back and forth between Earth and a satellite.) They have also brought about the rapid expansion of cable television, the wild proliferation of new programming, and in the past four or five years a brand-new industry aimed at enabling people to receive satellite signals in their homes. Perhaps a million Americans own satellite antennas of varying shapes and sizes. They use them to receive as many as a hundred different television channels bearing everything from X-rated movies to unedited network news stories to Russian weather reports to talk shows whose hosts are nuns.

Ten years ago no regular American television programming was transmitted by satellite. Today almost every viewer, whether or not he owns a satellite antenna, watches shows that have spent at least part of their lives bouncing through outer space. The significance of this change is not obvious to most people. Few of us care very much how Dynasty gets to our living rooms so long as it gets there intact and on time. Nonetheless, the satellite-television revolution, just now getting under way, has the potential to transform the world. It may one day come to be viewed as a more portentous development than the invention of television itself.

VASTLY MORE PRESCIENT THAN DAVID O. WOODBURY was Arthur C. Clarke, the famous science-fiction writer. Whereas most science-fiction writers spend their time predicting, say, the discovery of planets ruled by angry, invisible dogs, Clarke has largely confined himself to predicting things that actually come to pass. In 1945, for example—writing in an obscure British publication called Wireless World—he laid out the blueprint for the modern system of transmitting television signals by satellite.

Clarke’s proposal was prompted in part by the inability of television signals to pass through the ground or bend around the earth. TV stations perch their transmitting antennas on towers, mountains, and skyscrapers in order to increase their broadcast area, but even with such a boost their range seldom exceeds fifty miles. One way to overcome this limitation, Clarke wrote, would be to place TV antennas in space. A satellite circling the earth a hundred miles above the ground—the lowest feasible orbit—would have an enormous broadcast range.

Once in orbit at this altitude, however, a satellite would take only ninety minutes to circle the globe, and that would greatly limit its usefulness as a transmitting station. Television shows would fade in and out as the satellite zoomed past, and viewers would have to adjust their receiving antennas constantly in order to keep them trained on the drifting signal. Clarke pointed out that at a much higher altitude—22,300 miles—a satellite’s orbital period would be twenty-four hours, which is of course the same time that it takes the earth to turn on its axis. A satellite orbiting at this height directly above the equator would seem to hang motionless in the sky. Its signal could be received with a fixed antenna.

Satellites in this 22,300-mile orbit (now called the Clarke Belt) are often referred to as geosynchronous or geostationary. Clarke suggested launching three of them such that they would be evenly spaced above the equator. Bv using them to relay signals between stations on the ground, he wrote, it would be possible to send information almost instantaneously from almost anywhere to almost anywhere else.

The first communications satellites, launched more than a decade later, were anything but geosynchronous. Echo, built by Bell Telephone Laboratories and launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) into a low orbit in 1960, was just a big metallic balloon that served as a mirror off which radio signals could be bounced. Telstar.; launched in 1962, had an active transponder (or transmitter/responder, the device that receives a signal, amplifies it, and passes it along), but it too followed a low orbit that made it useless for its primary purpose much of the time. Still, Telstar carried the world’s first intercontinental television broadcast—a shot of an American flag waving over the AT&T earth station in Andover, Maine. The broadcast was only a test, but it was intercepted in England and France. The first functioning geosynchronous satellite, Syncom II. was launched the following year. President John F. Kennedy christened it by placing a telephone call to Abubakar Balewa, the prime minister of Nigeria.

In 1964 American television viewers watched part of the Tokyo Olympics courtesy of Syncom III. Other special events were broadcast from time to time. But television was not a priority of early communications satellites, which had to shut down all their other transmissions (usually telephone calls) in order to carry a single channel of television. For that matter, communications satellites were not a priority of the early space program. America’s first genuine domestic-communications satellite, Wes tar 1, built by Western Union, wasn’t launched until 1974.

In the fall of 1975 Home Box Office, a fledgling paytelevision company that had been founded three years earlier by Time Inc., began using Westar to distribute programming to its cable affiliates. The first offering was the “Thrilla in Manila,” the heavyweight-title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Frazier, on September 30. The fight was transmitted live from the Philippines to HBO cable affiliates serving 15,000 subscribers in Florida and Mississippi.

HBO’s decision to transmit regular programming by satellite was viewed at the time as mildly insane. What if the thing fell out of the sky? The networks generally used AT&T’s terrestrial microwave links to transmit their shows to stations around the country. Some suppliers distributed programs physically, on videotape. The phone company and the post office seemed comfortingly dependable in comparison with the great beyond. Another factor was cost. In order for an affiliate to receive television signals from a satellite, it needed an earth station—a large, dishshaped antenna, amplifiers, receivers, and other paraphernalia. In 1975 an earth station could cost as much as $125,000. This was a formidable investment for a cable operator, who couldn’t be entirely certain that any other suppliers would follow HBO’s lead or that HBO would stay in business.

One reason satellite antennas were so expensive in 1975 was that the Federal Communications Commission required them to be enormous—nearly thirty feet in diameter. This requirement was intended to protect cable subscribers from receiving substandard pictures (larger dishes generally produce better signals). But earth-station technology improved rapidly, and the FCG relaxed its rules in 1976. By using better receivers and amplifiers, cable operators were able to produce good pictures with dishes less than fifteen feet in diameter. Costs fell dramatically. Today a cable operator using a 4.5-meter dish can set up a commercial-quality earth station for less than $5,000.

As costs fell, HBO entered a period of dizzying growth. More and more cable-TV systems bought earth stations and began offering HBO to their customers. The service’s subscriber base grew from less than 100,000 in early 1975 to more than half a million by the middle of 1976. The drop in prices had another effect, which no one had anticipated: a satellite earth station began to look like something that an ordinary consumer might be willing to buy.

THE FIRST AMERICAN HOME EARTH STATION WAS built from scratch in 1976, by FI. Taylor Howard, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University. Shortly after HBO began its satellite transmissions, one of Howard’s graduate students mentioned to him that transponder 17 on Satfom I (where HBO had moved) was now carrying a television signal. “I simply went home and poured concrete,” Howard says. In his garage was an old fifteen-foot microwave antenna that he had acquired one day in the throes of an overpowering urge to own a large, useless thing. He hoisted it into place.

“I literally had to build everything,” he says. “I used some surplus components that were available, like the oscillator and receiver. It was fixed-tuned—only one channel. I used a microwave source that I bought at a surplus store and had to order a crystal for it. That cost a hundred bucks, which was the major cost of the system. It came together very quickly. It’s no big deal, actually. It’s just a broad-band FM receiver, and there’s not a lot to it.”

On September 14, 1976, Howard tuned in his first picture. It was HBO, the only American service then regularly carried by satellite. About six months later he wrote the company that he was picking up its signal on a home-built terminal and offered to pay a monthly fee. He never received a reply.

Over the next few years a growing but still small number of electronics gadgeteers cobbled together their own earth stations. Many of these systems were built according to instructions that Howard published in 1979, in a booklet called the Howard Terminal Manual, which its fans refer to as the Old Testament of the back-yard earth-station movement. Howard received some help with his manual from Robert B. Cooper, Jr., the editor of a cable-TV trade magazine, who had installed his own dish, a twenty-footer, in Arcadia, Oklahoma, in 1977. Today Howard and Cooper are known as the fathers of satellite television. Cooper publishes Coop’s Satellite Digest, a fortnightly journal also referred to as the Old Testament of the back-yard earthstation movement. Coop has a pipe permanently stuck in his mouth and is a well-known character in satellite circles. He is also a literary stylist with a passion for inverted commas and bold-face type. Reminiscing about the early days of the industry he helped create, he wrote recently,

My family became the first ‘Satellite TV Junkie’ family in the USA. I would later learn that Rod Wheeler, up in the Yukon in Canada, had preceded us with his own terminal by a month or so, and his family, living in a log cabin 15 miles from the nearest town, was already ‘hooked’ when we turned on down in Oklahoma. Everything was on horizontal polarization in those days; it would be 1978 before anything came up on vertical and I would be faced with ‘that’ problem.

In 1978, before the full I flowering of his prose style. Coop wrote an article for TV Guide that is not infrequently referred to as the Old Testament of the back-yard earthstation movement. By this time the networks had made a few bolder forays into outer space, using satellites to send programming to their affiliates and to receive transmissions from the field. NBC used a satellite to transmit The Tonight Show live from Burbank, California, to its headquarters in New York, where it was taped and edited for later broadcast. “ The live version on satellite is typically sent without ‘bleeps’ and often without commercials; during those numerous commercial breaks the cameras and mikes continue to run ‘hot’ on the satellite,” Coop explained in TV Guide. “Around our house we call this version ‘R-rated Carson.’ ” The networks also used satellites to transmit regional sporting events back to New York, making it possible for diehard football fans to pick up virtually any NFL game being played anywhere in the country, even when it was blacked out in their own city. (Some of the earliest and most enthusiastic owners of earth stations were bookies.)

Several brand-new programming suppliers were also taking advantage of thitherto unused satellite transponders: Showtime, a new movie channel that competed with HBO; WTCG, Ted Turner’s Atlanta “super station,” nowcalled WTBS (at about the same time, Turner installed a dish on a trailer so that on business trips he could watch his station); and a number of religious channels, including TBN (Trinity Broadcasting Network), CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network), and PTL (which stands for People That Love, a religious network, as well as Praise the Lord, a popular offering on TBN). All these transmissions were intended for cable-TV operators, who paid fees for the right to include them in the programming packages that they sold to their subscribers. But anyone with a dish in his back yard could pick them up as well.

Space-age television was full of unanticipated pitfalls for broadcasters. One of the first markets for Turner’s super station was a cable system in Hawaii. Turner’s station in those days carried commercials by, among others, local automobile dealers. When Hawaiian viewers saw how inexpensive used cars were in Atlanta, they were furious. It did no good to remind them that they lived in a very nice place where many Georgians would be happy to spend their vacations. Turner’s sponsors had to be told to keep their prices to themselves.

Gradually the back-yard earth-station movement began to expand beyond its early base of ham-radio operators and electronics tinkerers. Farmers, ranchers, and other people who lived in remote areas that would never be wired for cable saw dish antennas as their only chance to get decent reception. Neighbors dropped by to complain about the damned radar station, stuck around to watch a bit of the Canadian broadcast of Charlie’s Angels, and went home to order dishes of their own. Ten thousand dollars could seem like a reasonable price to pay for dozens of crystalclear channels where there had been only static before. The number of programs increased, and antenna manufacturers, having exhausted their original market of cable operators, began selling dishes in suburban neighborhoods where reception wasn’t a problem: people just wanted to watch a lot of TV. Satellite stores began to pop up in shopping centers. Prices fell further and the equipment became more sophisticated. In the early days earth-station owners had to move their dishes by hand to switch from one satellite to another. Today changing satellites is as easy as changing channels.

The cable business, meanwhile, was continuing to expand, and more and more new programming was turning up on the satellites. The boom led to some interesting juxtapositions. Today on Satcom F4 the National Christian Network is just five transponders away from the Playboy Channel. In between are Netcom, a network for teleconferencing, Sportsvision (Chicago-area sporting events), American Movie Classics (films at least fifteen years old), and Home Sports Entertainment (sporting events in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico). On Westar 5, forty degrees west of Satcom F4, the services include one X-rated network, the Financial News Network, a service that covers harness racing in Pennsylvania, a service that covers regional sports in Michigan, and the University Network, an uncategorizable potpourri masterminded by Dr. Gene Scott, a Stanford-educated evangelist who has been known to raise money for his station by staring into the camera in reproachful silence until his viewers are shamed into contributing. Eleven degrees farther west is Galaxy 1, home of, among others, HBO, Showtime, the Cable News Network, the Spanish International Network, the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, C-SPAN (the network that covers Congress), and WOR-TV, a New York—area independent. (All of this changes from month to month, and even from week to week.)

In the early days picking up satellite broadcasts with back-yard terminals was, at best, of dubious legality. Cooper and Turner had licenses from the FCC permitting them to use their antennas for “experimental” purposes. But most other earth-station owners operated in at least apparent violation of the nation’s principal broadcasting law, the Communications Act of 1934. In 1934 not even Arthur C. Clarke had anticipated that children in Arcadia, Oklahoma, would one day rush home from kindergarten to watch reruns of a show like Gilligan’s Island beamed from a point in space 22,300 miles away. When earth-station owners numbered no more than a few dozen, nobody worried very much about the law. But as the number of satellite transmissions increased, and as the number of earth-station owners swelled, programming suppliers, broadcasters, cable operators, and legislators gradually realized that they had a problem on their hands.

Late last October this problem was partly resolved (or at least deferred) by the Cable Communications Policy Act, which made it legal for private citizens to own and use earth stations. But many snags remained. Premium programmers like HBO and Showtime had been annoyed that hundreds of thousands of dish owners were watching their programming for free. The new law made such viewing legal until programmers either scrambled their signals or initiated some sort of marketing scheme that would enable earth-station owners to pay for the television they watched. The premium programmers promised that they would scramble.

While HBO and Showtime fretted about viewers they didn’t want, other companies set out to provide programming directly to the back-yard market. Calculating that many Americans would be willing to buy satellite systems if the antennas could be made small and cheap enough, a few companies invested hundreds of millions of dollars to build high-powered satellites whose signals would be receivable by dishes just two or three feet in diameter. This still largely hypothetical television service is known as Direct Broadcast Satellite, or DBS. DBS shows signs of being one of the most expensive bad ideas in the history of telecommunications (for reasons that will be explained later), but in the early 1980s it looked to some people like the future itself.

Back-yard earth stations, meanwhile, have multiplied far beyond the early imaginings of Taylor Howard and Bob Cooper. Earth-station owners who have time to read can choose from among perhaps a dozen satellite magazines and program guides—including one glossy hundred-page publication devoted solely to the shows on Galaxy 1. It is estimated that 20,000 to 40,000 new stations are being installed every month, and the pace is quickening. A complete home system—including a dish antenna big enough to horrify almost any neighbor—can now be had for less than $2500.

A SATELLITE, IT TURNS OUT, IS SURPRISINGLY LARGE. Not long ago I saw several tremendous ones being put together at Hughes Communications, in Los Angeles, a company responsible for many of the “birds” (as they are known to the trade) in the Clarke Belt. The biggest was Intelsat VI, an international-communications satellite scheduled to be launched next year. When fully deployed in outer space, it will be twelve feet in diameter and nearly forty feet tall—smaller than a grain silo but vastly larger than the stove-sized canister I had been expecting.

Before you can look at the satellites at Hughes, you have to put on a smock—just for “psychological reasons,”according to my guide, Emery S. Wilson, Jr. Everyone in the assembly area had one on. Mine was dark blue; Wilson’s was light blue. We walked around the immense building and peered into things. Satellites are made of wires, metal strips, aluminum foil, garden hose, the insides of old TVs, and a number of items too technical to be of interest to the general reader. There was a piece of space shuttle in one corner. Some engineers were working on a satellite for Australia that will bring television not only to the outback but also to Papua New Guinea. Nearby were a couple of huge space-simulation chambers for testing new birds. Space-simulation chambers! But it turns out that weightlessness is one thing the chambers can’t simulate.

Hughes’s best-selling bird is the HS 376. Galaxy 1 and Westar 5, to name two, are versions of this popular design (Satcom F4 was built by RCA, the other major manufacturer of communications satellites). Those two satellites that the space shuttle rescued last year were HS 376s. The HS 376 is cylindrical, like Intelsat VI, but only twenty feet long when deployed. When the shuttle launches one, it pushes it out on springs, Wilson told me. The insides of the satellite are then “de-spun” and a dish-shaped antenna pops up at one end like the lid of a can. This dish collects signals from the ground, feeds them into an amplifier, and then beams them back down to the ground. Doing this requires surprisingly little electricity. Galaxy 1's twenty-four transponders can transmit twenty-four channels of television at just nine watts each—approximately the same output as a flashlight.

When my tour ended, I turned in my smock and drove over to the Airport Park Hotel to meet Tim Givens and Doug Brown, Jr. Tim and Doug work fora magazine called 37 V, w hich of course stands for “satellite television.” STV is an informative publication whose writers nonetheless sometimes stray into the realm of fine writing. “Looking back over many a dull and droll biology course,” one editor wrote recently while musing about the proper plural of antenna, “we seem to remember that ‘antennae’ were something on bugs (female bugs at that). Antennas usually are on houses, cars, buses, boats, airplanes and other sundry modes of transportation and places of habitat.”

Tim and Doug are not primarily or even secondarily writers. Their jobs at the time I knew them involved driving around the United States and Canada in a van with two dishes (the safest plural of antenna) mounted on a trailer behind it. Every four hundred miles they would stop, revup their portable Honda generator, tune in each of the dozen or so North American birds that carry significant amounts of television, and measure the strength of every channel. Satellites generally don’t transmit their signals uniformly in all directions but instead focus them on the parts of the earth they want to reach. Westar 4, for example, aims the bulk of its signal at the continental United States (the best viewing area is somewhere in the Midwest). The area where a satellite’s signal falls is known as its footprint. Doug and Pirn’s mission was to measure all the footprints and compile a signal-strength chart that would help people in different parts of the country figure out what size dishes they ought to buy in order to receive good pictures.

I had learned about the Van’tenna (as the vehicle is known) in a copy of 37V that I had bought on a whim. I live in Manhattan, where there is essentially no market for private satellite TV. You just can’t put a dish in your apartment, and if you could you probably wouldn’t, because the city is teeming with microwave interference (primarily from the phone company, but also from taxi radios, beepers, cellular phones, and television relays, all of which bounce around among the skyscrapers and play havoc with satellite signals). There is no reason in the world for my local newsstand to carry STV, but it does. In order to keep the magazine in stock I stroll in every couple of weeks and buy another copy, creating the illusion of impetuous demand. On the cover of the first copy I bought was a picture of the Van’tenna, its two big dishes filling the foreground. Tim was standing alongside and looking through the viewfinder of a video camera. In the background, peeking over the tops of some trees, was the Washington Monument. When I saw that picture, I knew I wanted to ride in that van. I called Tim’s boss, and he said it would be all right.

Tim, Doug, and I drove in my rental car up to Reseda, several miles north of Los Angeles, where they had left the Van’tenna. Tim and Doug were both in their early twenties and both from Shelby, North Carolina, where STV is published. Both had moustaches. Doug had a thick drawl that turned his partner’s name into a languorous disyllable: Teeeeeeeeum. The van was parked in front of the home of Denis Dushane, who with his two brothers and a third partner owns Janeil Corporation, a manufacturer of dishes, receivers, and other satellite equipment. Denis had a big Janeil dish mounted on a pole above his patio. In his living room was a big-screen TV, a huge bank of electronic equipment, and shag carpeting so thickly padded that you could have dived into it from the back of the couch and not hurt your head. We watched a little television with Denis and one of his children, just to get in the mood, and then loaded up the van and headed for San Diego, where the next signal check was to be made.

The Van’tenna is a sleek Dodge Ram painted silver and festooned with racing stripes. Virtually every inch of its surface that isn’t covered with a racing stripe is covered with red or blue lettering: CAN-AM ‘84 CROSS COUNTRY ROAD TRIP SATELLITE TELEVISION FROM COAST TO COAST STV/ONSAT CAN-AM ROAD TRIP. (OnSat is a weekly programming guide published by the STV people.) The interior of the van is done up in plush gray upholstery and wall-to-wall carpet, most of it installed by Doug. There are little Venetian blinds in the windows. On that trip most of the back of the van was filled with electronic equipment: two MTI 2800 antenna positioners, two Gould satellite receivers, a GBS 2600 satellite-television test set, a Sky Lye 8, a Skv-Angle, and lots of other stuff. There was also perhaps a hundred dollars’ worth of pennies that Tim had tossed back there.

About halfway to San Diego we pulled off the road at a public beach, put our hands in the Pacific Ocean, and walked around aimlessly for a while. We stopped again a little later to watch the sunset. A more or less steady stream of people came over to ask about the dishes. “You get the Playboy Channel on that?” This is a question that almost everybody asks eventually, and the answer to it is yes. A desire to see naked women on their television sets, according to dish dealers, is one of the main reasons men buy dishes. It’s not the reason they keep them, however. “They watch the Playboy Channel for about a week,” Tim told me. “Then they never watch it again, except when their friends come over and ask them, ‘Hey, do you get the Playboy Channel on that?’ ” A man who looked like a surfboard salesman came over and said he had been thinking about buying a dish. He and Tim discussed specifications. “You get the Playboy Channel on that?” he asked finally, and I stopped holding my breath.

When we were back on the road again, something at Camp Pendleton kept setting off Tim’s radar detector. Then we saw a UFO. Ringed with red lights, it zoomed across the sky, stopped suddenly, and swerved off at an impossible angle. What looked like little faces peered down from the windows and seemed to signal us—but it turned out to be just a prank, a helium balloon with a flare tied to it drifting slowly across the sky. At around seven we stopped to buy gas. “It seems weird that back home it’s damn ten o’clock,” Doug said. Next door to the gas station was a store apparently called the Liquor Motel. We went in and bought scotch, bourbon, beer.

THERE ARE TWO SITUATIONS IN WHICH YOI ARE ALlowed to watch as much television as you want to: when you are sick and when you are at a motel. Most people, when they go to a motel, turn on the television set immediately, even before they go into the bathroom to see what kind of free soap the maid has given them. At the Best Western in Vista, though, we didn’t bother with the TV in the room. Tim called the airport to find out our latitude and longitude and we put the beer on ice in the van. Then Tim and Doug began to set up the antenna.

A dish antenna isn’t shaped like just any dish. If you sawed one in half, the cross section would be a parabola. Microwaves landing anywhere on a parabolic surface are reflected to a single point above its center. This focuses and amplifies them, making it possible to transform a weak and dispersed signal from outer space into twentyfour channels of television (or as many as 324,000 simultaneous telephone conversations). You can demonstrate this principle by putting your ear at the focus point and listening while Tim and Doug shout “You idiot!” into the dish. The sound waves act just like microwaves from space, bouncing off all parts of the dish and boring powerfully into your brain.

The concentrated satellite signal at the focus point is gathered by a funnel-like device called a feedhorn, which strengthens the signal and prunes away unwanted frequencies. The signal is then fed into a low-noise amplifier (LNA), which beefs it up further and passes it along to a down converter, which changes its frequency and passes it on to a receiver, which amplifies it again and passes it on to a radio-frequency modulator, which turns it into exactly the sort of signal a television set is accustomed to receiving from its VHF antenna or cable.

Satellite-television equipment is evolving rapidly. In another couple ofyears the equipment will have been simplified to the point at which a consumer won’t have to do much more than stick his dish in his yard and run a single wire in to his TV.

Before a dish can receive a signal from a satellite, it has to be aimed directly at the satellite. Tim aimed our dish by taking the latitude and longitude of our motel, subtracting them from the latitude and longitude of Comstar D4, consuiting his World Satellite A iming Guide (published by STV), yelling at Doug, fiddling with some dials, and yelling at Doug again. Finally he found Comstar. Once you know where one satellite is, finding the others is easy. {People whose dishes are installed in permanent locations don’t need to go through this rigmarole every time they want to watch TV; most systems have computerized actuators that move the dishes automatically.)

Well, Doug and I had a beer and Tim had some scotch. Then I had some bourbon and Doug had another beer and Tim had some more scotch. Then we all had a drink, and so on. A commercial for LA beer came up on the screen. Low-alcohol beer! What’s the point? Then we watched some sort of helicopter show. Tim dipped away from it just as the helicopter was about to be blown up with a Molotov cocktail made out of a camping lantern. I was actually starting to get interested in the story—did the show really have a budget big enough to allow for the destruction of a helicopter?—but when you have your own earth station, you don’t want to waste all your time watching one particular channel, because there are so many other channels that you could be watching. So Tim moved us over to Galaxy 1, where we watched a few minutes of a football game.

During the Olympics, Tim said, people with dishes could watch any event that was going on at any time, by dipping through the numerous transponders that ABC had leased for the occasion. They didn’t have to watch those men throwing a ball around in a swimming pool if they didn’t want to. They could watch, say, those horses running around on the golf course instead. And no commercials. During the political conventions, he said, he’d seen network correspondents scurrying around the door, yelling at their technicians, combing their hair, complaining about the stupid politicians, and—mostly—complaining that they weren’t getting as much air time as they deserved: network television in its underpants, as it were. Earth-station owners can also watch live transmissions from the space shuttle on channels that RCA provides free of charge to NASA. Network coverage of shuttle dights seems for some inexplicable reason to be limited to the landings. How many times can anyone watch the shuttle touch down in the desert? But the NASA channel shows everything that goes on aboard the dights, including swearing, thumb-twiddling, and goofing around.

One of the most popular satellite “shows” used to be the Chicago feed of ABC’s World News Tonight. For several hours each afternoon Max Robinson, the Chicago anchor, would sit at his desk in front of a live camera, preparing for the few minutes during which he would be woven into the fabric of the evening news. W hile he waited, he yelled at his colleagues, told dirty jokes, screamed at people on the phone, and developed a wide but secret following among dish owners. Dish installers checked out new systems by tuning to the Max feed. Fans built vast libraries of Max tapes. Some people felt that the “hairsprav incident” was the purest expression of Max-ness; others savored the continuing series Max Bays Things on the Phone. Max cults sprang up. Finally ABC caught on and shut him down.

We poured another drink, and Tim turned to transponder 12 on Satcom F4—the Playboy Channel. W hen I was in third or fourth grade, my friend John Ruth told me that late at night, after the three networks had gone off the air, you could see naked women on TV. This was not the only piece of incorrect information I ever received from John Ruth. But on several occasions when I was spending the night at his house, we stayed up past “Moment of Meditation” and the musical version of the Lord’s Prayer and turned the dial expectantly from staticky blur to statickv blur until, finally, at what seemed like dawn but probably wasn’t much past midnight, we fell asleep.

Nowadays, however, thirdand fourth-graders in many parts of the country are able to do what John Ruth and I were not. A game show called Everything Goes was on the Playboy Channel when Tim tuned in. A young woman was introduced to three men and then had to try to identify them by looking only at their bare bottoms. She missed two out of three and had to let a fourth man take off some of her clothes. She and this man, her opponent, were asked various questions, and when they answered wrong they had to surrender some of their clothes. Finally it was time for the last question, which would decide which contestant would have to take off almost everything. “The guy almost never has to strip,” Tim said. Sure enough, the woman was asked an impossible question and had to let the man take off her brassiere. After a full half hour of inane buildup, she didn’t seem nearly naked enough. Then she had to stand around—reluctantly, it appeared— chatting casually with the host and the other contestants while the credits rolled.

At ten o’clock the manager of the motel came out and said that the Honda portable generator was making too much noise. No problem! We poured another drink and Tim produced three huge orange extension cords from somewhere in the van. We linked them together and ran them from the van across the parking lot, up over the balcony, and into Tim and Doug’s room. We stuck the plug into the wall socket. ‘The picture came back on. We had a drink to celebrate and then flipped to a more pornographic channel. The manager came out again to say that a guest, apparently having stuck his head out his window and focused binoculars on the van’s rearview mirror, had discerned that we were watching something that offended him and had requested that we knock it off. No problem! While the manager lingered at the door of the van, eyes glued to the screen, Tim pulled out a sort of vinyl tarp that hooked onto gizmos in the ceiling of the van and formed a curtain covering all the windows. By this time we had drunk to what is commonly called excess, and putting up the curtain involved a great deal of falling down and knocking over bottles, cans, suitcases, the ice chest, papers, boxes, tools, and pieces of electronic equipment. Pennies tinkled onto the asphalt. Lights flicked on in a number of motel rooms, and a few doors slammed. We poured another drink and decided that, all things considered, we had watched enough TV, I drained my glass while Tim and Doug shut down the equipment and became hopelessly entangled in the serpentine extension cords. And so to bed.

“GINGER ROGERS DID EVERYTHING FRED ASTAIRE did, except backwards and in high-heeled shoes,” said Pat Porter, who had just been introduced as “the most wildest speaker we’ve ever had.” lie was STTI, Satellite Television Technology International, a trade association made up of people who build and sell earth stations. STTI was holding a trade show, the week before Thanksgiving, at the Loews Anatole, in Dallas. Porter, the marketing manager of a company called StarCorn, was giving a talk titled “The Oldest Profession Explained.” I slipped out before I could figure out what he meant by this. He couldn’t possibly have been referring to the home-satellite business, which is neither old nor a profession (although, like all businesses, it longs to be the latter; some dish dealers have taken to calling themselves certified satellite professionals).

Earlier that morning, in the auditorium where Porter was speaking, a man named Guy Davis had asked, “Is there anyone that’s been in the industry for more than two years?” Perhaps ten people, in an auditorium filled with earth-station dealers, distributors, and manufacturers, raised their hands. One of the hallmarks of the earth-station movement is, to put it mildly, a certain thinness of experience. “The uninformed person is capable of making a very good living in this industry,” Davis confided. A recent survey, he said, had found that 80 percent of new dish buyers were unhappy with their purchases, presumably because dealers had installed them improperly or made exaggerated claims. “That’s a sad statement of affairs to make,” Davis said. Even the experts haven’t been experts for very long: five years ago only a handful of people had so much as heard of satellite TV.

At one point I stepped out into the hotel’s parking lot, to take a look at seventy-five dishes of varying sizes, all aimed at the Clarke Belt and funneling television signals into the convention hall. There were supposed to be more dishes, but the parking lot isn’t very big. At the previous major satellite show, at Opryland, in Nashville, there had been more than 300 functioning antennas.

Back inside, I wandered past an extortionate hot-dog stand and made my way into the main exhibition area, where several hundred booths had been erected. Television sets were everywhere: Bewitched, The Right Stuff, the Three Stooges, a tape of the most recent space-shuttle mission, Regis Philbin’s Healthstyles, the new Paul McCartney video, a program in Spanish called Principles of Sunday School Growth, The Young and the Restless, a Canadian McDonald’s commercial in French, I Dream of Jeannie, the Weather Channel. Two Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders were autographing little plastic footballs at the StarCom booth. When they finished signing a football, they tucked it hygienically into a little plastic bag. I put mine in the pocket of my jacket and moved along to the Basic Systems booth, where Mrs. Texas was autographing pictures of herself. (Miss Texas would be on duty at the StarCom booth the next day.) In another part of the hall was Kenda Moore, a volunteer sheriff-dispatcher whose other titles, according to a bulletin she handed me, include Miss PreTeen Missouri, Junior Miss Missouri, Camdenton’s Junior Miss, Miss Teen Missouri, Miss Camden County, and, most recently, Miss DialCo (DialCo makes mounts for dishes).

The crowd in the exhibition hall was a boot-rich and tiepoor collection of relatively young and almost exclusively white men who gave the impression of having entered the earth-station business after having lost almost all their money selling citizen’s-band radios. The equipment on display was bafflingly various. There were solid dishes, mesh dishes, fiber-glass dishes, aluminum dishes, plastic-coated dishes, stainless-steel dishes, white dishes, black dishes, small dishes, huge dishes, one-piece dishes, two-piece dishes, fifty-piece dishes. One company was selling a dish that could be mounted on the roof of a camper; another was selling one that folded up like an umbrella. “We guarantee it for a year, but we expect it to work fine for five,”said one grinning exhibitor, his arm wrapped like a steel band around the shoulders of his would-be customer.

“What makes your dish different from everybody else’s?" I asked another exhibitor. “It’s blue,” he said. A man nearby was selling a polyurethane foam called FrothPak, which he said was a fast-setting alternative to concrete and was suitable for dish-mount installations. He was demonstrating the stuff by squirting it into paper cups, where it looked like that frozen drink sold at 7-Eleven stores. “I used to put straws in them,” he said. Every now and then someone came up and tried to make off with one. Exhibitors at two booths were selling videotapes intended to teach dealers how to install satellite-TV systems. One videotape recommended doing something that the other videotape said never to do (use electrical tape).

I asked a reporter from a trade magazine how many of these exhibitors he thought would still be in business the following year. “About thirty to fifty percent,”he said.

The earth-station industry is going through a period of churning innovation. Rapid technological evolution has made it possible to buy an earth station today for a fraction of what an inferior system cost just three or four years ago—but that evolution has also left a lot of corpses. Part of the fun of wandering around a trade show like the one in Dallas lies in trying to guess which exhibitors will end up as forgotten martyrs to the business they are creating. “Nineteen eighty-five is when they start playing hardball,” said one exhibitor, a man who ran a satellite business as a sideline to his automobile dealership. Ominously, sev - eral booths were manned by Japanese.

LAI ER IN THE DAY TWO REPRESENTATIVES FROM HBO paid a surprise visit to the Loews Anatole and held a secret meeting with the board of directors of SPACE (the Society for Private and Commercial Earth Stations), a trade association. The chairman of SPACE is Taylor Howard, the engineering professor who built the first American back-yard earth station. Shortly after the meeting began, I joined a small group of trade-magazine reporters in geostationary orbit outside. A camera crew from Boresight, a perhaps too hastily named satellite-television network that covers developments in satellite television, shot some poignant footage of the closed door.

Actually, everyone knew what the secret meeting was about: HBO’s plan to scramble its satellite signals in order to make them unintelligible to back-yard earth stations. HBO had announced that it was on the verge of encrypting its programming. This plan greatly annoyed SPACE, STTI, and almost everyone with a dish in his back yard. The fun of owning an earth station would diminish sharply if there was nothing up there to watch, and it was feared that HBO’s move would have a domino effect. Howard said that earth-station owners would happily pay for services like HBO if some reasonable billing method could be devised: perhaps viewers could rent decoders from their local cable affiliates. SPACE wanted HBO to delay scrambling until someone could figure out a way to make this possible. HBO was not eager to take on the headaches of selling its programming directly to individual viewers. But it was reluctant to alienate the back-yard market entirely. Pay television’s heady growth years were over, and HBO was having trouble scraping up new customers. In fact, the company had just laid off 125 employees. If the back-yard earth-station movement ever got big enough, HBO might be very interested in it. In the meantime, though, there was little to discuss. The HBO representatives were saying words to this effect to the board of SPACE, and the board of SPACE was preparing to sound annoyed at the press conference that would follow.

The threat of scrambling hung over the Dallas show like a cloud. It was the thinkable unthinkable. The partly wishful consensus was that full-scale signal encrypting of the sort HBO was contemplating was not yet workable. In any scrambling system, decoding devices have to be installed at every point where the scrambled satellite signal is received—known in the cable business as a head end. Large cable systems usually have more than one head end, because it is usually more convenient to have several distribution points than to route every wire back to a single receiving station. HBO delivers programming to roughly 6,000 head ends. Most of these would require at least two decoders—one for HBO itself and one for Cinemax, its sister service—and so there would have to be about 10,000 decoders in all. If anything went wrong with any of them, the area it served would be blacked out, and angry customers would jam the phone lines with complaints. By the time of the Dallas show roughly a dozen satellite-television services were transmitting scrambled signals using encrvpting systems manufactured by a company called Oak, based in Illinois. Problems with the decoders were fairly frequent.

HBO had helped to foster skepticism about its plans, by claiming repeatedly that it was on the verge of scrambling and then postponing the date. Apparently it had been having problems with decoders too. (HBO’s were being developed not by Oak but by M/A-COM, a high-technology company that had built its reputation in part by supplying encrypting equipment to the Pentagon. If the President ever decides to start a nuclear war, he will use M/A-COM equipment to do it, I was told.) Some industry observers had decided that scrambling was all a bluff. John Stover, the editor of something called the Home Satellite Market Report, had said as much in STV: “Even if the equipment performed perfectly, which it won’t, and even if the programmers quit simulcasting clear transmissions, which they can’t, scrambling just won’t work.” And yet, and yet. Earth-station dealers and owners were worried that they were living on borrowed time.

The debate about scrambling, and about who owns the microwaves that carry television signals through outer space, is typical of the sort of confusion that arises w hen technology bounds off in some bold new direction. Americans are accustomed to thinking of television as something they receive for free. TV is part of “the air”; you turn on your set and there it is. Satellite television also comes out of the air, and therefore it should be available to everyone at no cost, according to this way of thinking. ‘There is also a quaint but widespread conviction that things that are invisible are not real and thus cannot be owned. Cable television seems different because it is distributed by wire, and people are used to paying for things that travel by wire (such as electricity and phone calls).

Programming suppliers like HBO take the wholly modern view that a satellite-television signal can be stolen just as surely as an idea can. In most other contexts it would be hard for an educated person to argue with this point of view. This is 1985, after all; germs, oxygen, and many other essentially invisible things are known to be quite real. But satellite television poses a special problem. HBO would not exist if American taxpayers had not pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the space program over the past quarter of a century. Every American communications satellite has been heavily subsidized by the public. If HBO had had to pay the true cost of developing and deploying the technology that its business depends on, an individual HBO subscription might cost—w’ho knows?— $100,000 a month. Earth-station owners argue that it is the programming suppliers who are being naive. ‘The owners see television from space as the first real return on their substantial investment in astronauts and rockets. ‘They say they don’t mind if the programmers scramble, so long as back-yard earth-station owners are given some means of decoding, and paying for, the services they w’ant to watch.

Early last fall sentiments like these led Senator Barry Goldwater and Albert Gore, Jr., then in the House, to introduce legislation favorable to back-yard earth-station owners and manufacturers. Both politicians saw’ satellite television as a juicy populist issue. Home satellite TV, Goldwater said, “originated in rural America and it has been carried along primarily by many small manufacturers and dealers walling to risk financing a completely new and untested venture.”

The earth-station issue touches many irresistible political themes: farming, entrepreneurship, high technology, every American’s God-given right to watch the Super Bowl at home. Key points from the Goldwater and Gore bills had been added to the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984—the bill that said, in effect, that HBO had to stop complaining about back-yard earth stations unless it either scrambled its signal or set up a marketing system. SPACE was in certain respects pleased, because the law had made dishes “legal,” and in certain respects upset, because the law hadn’t made direct marketing a mandatory adjunct to scrambling.

IT IS POSSIBLE THAT HBO WAS NOT ENT I RELY HAPPY about the way things turned out. The company had spent approximately $10 million on the development of scrambling technology (including one expensive system that w’as obsolete for its intended purpose by the time decoders could be built). The money spent on scrambling can’t really be considered an investment, because it won’t bring the company much new business: most dish owners don’t live in cable-serviced areas, and those who do aren’t going to sign up for cable simply in order to keep HBO in addition to the fifty or sixty services they receive in the clear. Several satellite-industry observers I talked to in Dallas said they thought that if HBO were starting all over again, it might let somebody else make the first move.

In its press releases HBO has consistently claimed that scrambling is intended to prevent its signals from being received “by owners of backyard satellite antennas.” But that isn’t really the case. Much of the pressure for scrambling has come from cable operators, who are w’orried less about hobbyists than about owners of hotels, apartment buildings, and condominiums who intercept satellite signals and sell television services to residents w ithout paying anything for the privilege. This sort of unauthorized reception for commercial purposes has always been illegal, but pursuing violators in the courts has been difficult and expensive.

Shortly after the show’ at the Loews Anatole, I paid a visit to HBO’s Communications Center, in Hauppauge, Long Island. The center is HBO’s “uplink”—in satellite lingo a facility used to beam signals up to the Clarke Belt (receiving stations are called downlinks). Out in back were four eleven-meter dishes that looked like the sort of equipment one might use to incinerate enemy aircraft. In the basement were about a hundred M/A-COM VideoCipher 2 decoders, which were being tested. Stacked eight or ten high in black metal racks, they looked like stereo receivers.

Many of the people who had been at the Loews Anatole would have been quite surprised to see that these decoders actually existed, having convinced themselves that they were a figment of HBO’s imagination. But the boxes were real, and the tests were progressing satisfactorily. M/A-COM began shipping decoders to cable operators in January. If everything goes according to plan, all of HBO’s programming will be scrambled by fall.

Not long before the first decoders were shipped, Showtime, HBO’s principal rival, announced that it also intended to use the M/A-COM system to scramble its signal. This made earth-station owners simultaneously depressed and optimistic: they were depressed because another popular service was planning to “go dark”; they were optimistic because individual marketing now seemed somewhat more likely. If several services could agree to use the same encrypting system, dealing directly with the back-yard market might begin to look feasible. A dish owner could subscribe, through some third party, to half a dozen satellite services and receive a single decoder to unscramble them all.

If such a marketing system is ever established, it will almost certainly amount to a death sentence for Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) television. DBS is the system under which several companies plan to use high-powered satellites to transmit original programming directly to subscribers equipped with small dishes. DBS was conceived early in the satellite-television era, when equipment was still primitive and dishes had to be large in order to pick up acceptable signals from the low-powered satellites then in existence. The belief at the time was that the only way to make dishes smaller and cheaper, and thus attractive to a large market, was to build bigger, more powerful satellites. Guided by this belief, the Satellite Television Corporation (STC) signed a $113 million contract with RCA in 1982 for two high-powered satellites, to be delivered in 1986. Each of these satellites will divide 200 watts of power among just six transponders. (Wes tar 5, by contrast, uses the same total wattage to power twenty-four transponders.) In 1984 three other companies ordered similar birds.

Exactly what these satellites will eventually be used for is doubt. Recent improvements in earth-station technology have made it possible for small, cheap dishes to pick up clear signals from old-fashioned low-powered satellites, rendering the big birds fairly irrelevant. In November of 1984 Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT), STC’s parent company, announced that it had “significantly restructured its approach” to DBS and that it was essentially dissolving STC. The December, 1984, issue of DBS News, an industry newsletter, commented somewhat hopefully that “DBS is not an enterprise for the impatient.”

All of this is enough to make one marvel at the sleek efficiency of that old-fashioned mechanism for underwriting television: commercials. Yikes!

KENNETH SCHAFFER SAID, “THERE ARE TWO HUNdred and sixtv-six million people in Russia watching this, and only, let’s see, two, three, four, five”—he was counting the people in the room—“six people in America.” This was an exaggeration, of course; most of the people in Russia were asleep.

We were huddled around a television set in a cramped room at Columbia University’s W. Averell Harriman Institute for Advanced Study of the Soviet Union, watching the test pattern of Programma I, the principal Soviet domestic television network. “This is the most beautiful test pattern in the world,” Schaffer said, as pleased as if he had created it himself. We were watching it live, by satellite.

Soon the test pattern was replaced by the face of a clock, which ticked down the last few minutes to show time. It was three minutes before four o’clock in the afternoon in New York, which meant that it was almost eight in the morning on the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk, where Programma I’s broadcast day was about to begin. (Several more hours would pass before the network came on in Moscow, where it was almost midnight. The Soviet Union extends across eleven of the world’s twenty-four time zones.) The clock gave way to a fluttering red flag, and it was time for the news. The graduate students at Columbia call this show Good Morning, Siberia.

Tuning in to Programma I in the United States is extremely complicated. Soviet television is technically quite different from American television, and you can’t watch both with the same equipment. Furthermore, Programma I isn’t carried by a Clarke Belt bird. It’s transmitted by four non-geosynchronous satellites, called Molniya 3s, which are spaced ninety degrees apart in a highly elliptical polar orbit. Every few hours Programma I goes off the air for a few minutes so that Russian downlink operators can shift their forty-foot dishes from the Molniya that is fading out to the Molniya that is fading in.

Phis seemingly clunky system actually has many advantages for the Russians. Nearly a quarter of the Soviet Union is so far north that it can’t be “seen" by a Clarke Belt satellite: the curve of the earth gets in the way, even from 22,300 miles up. A Molniya, by contrast, can see virtually all of the Northern Hemisphere from the highest point in its orbit. This orbit is also less expensive to achieve than a geosynchronous one. The Soviet practice has been to launch lots of big, cut-rate, rattletrap satellites and replace them as they fall apart. That usually doesn’t take very long. The Russians have orbited about a hundred Molniyas in the twenty years they’ve been using them to transmit television.

The Molniya orbit looks very strange on a map. Its perigee, or lowest point, is just 600 kilometers above a spot in the Southern Hemisphere, and its apogee, or highest point, is more than 40,000 kilometers above Hudson Bay. (Because each Molniya satellite takes twelve hours to travel around the earth—half the time it takes the earth to turn on its axis—it actually makes two loops each day. Twelve hours after the Hudson Bay apogee it reaches another one, over central Siberia. Only the Hudson Bay apogee is used for television transmission; the Soviets use the Siberian one for voice and data transmission.)

As a Molniya approaches its apogee, its apparent motion in relation to the earth decreases, just as a distant airplane seems to move more slowly than a near one flying at the same speed. During this portion of its orbit the Molniya appears from the ground to be almost stationary for several hours, making it easy to aim at. Arthur C. Glarke refers to the Molniya orbit, affectionately, as “the Anti-Clarke Belt.”

Despite the considerable peculiarities of the Russian system Western satellite hobbyists began picking up bits and pieces of Programma I in 1979. Invariably some crucial elements of the transmission would be missing—the color and the sound, for example. But it was genuine domestic Russian TV, the same thing that average Soviet citizens were watching, and it was live.

Early in the 1980s Kenny Schaffer began to think he might be able to build a system that would pick up more than fragments of Programma I. Schaffer, a chain-smoking former rock-and-roll publicist (for Alice Cooper, among others), was recently described by Electronics Week magazine as an “inventor and philosopher of science.”He has dark curly hair, a Groucho Marx moustache, a manic verbal delivery, and 1,500 hours of unreleased Jimi Hendrix tapes, which he acquired while working on a posthumous Hendrix album. Schaffer is a sort of aging hippie entrepreneur whose principal remaining link to the Woodstock era is a tendency to forget to patent his inventions. These include the first workable wireless microphone and the first wireless electric guitar, which he developed in 1977. His customers—before other manufacturers learned to duplicate his unprotected transmitter and receiver—included not only the Rolling Stones, Kiss, the Electric Light Orchestra, and Pink Floyd, but also Bell Laboratories, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and NASA, which used his technology to improve space communications.

By 1983 Schaffer figured he had just about licked the Molniya problem. Despite the objections of his landlady, he was picking up Programma I with a rudimentary tracking antenna mounted on the roof of his apartment building. He began trying to persuade several large universities to hire him to build full-scale systems for them. But the universities were skeptical; most engineering professors didn’t believe that he could do what he said he could, and Sovietology professors weren’t interested. In the end only Columbia took a chance on him.

Columbia’s system, which Schaffer installed last fall, consists of a sixteen-foot dish, an Apple computer programmed to track the satellites automatically, a commercial microwave receiver, a modified French-format Sony television monitor, Schaffer’s (patented) “d-Cyberia” audio decoder, a modified video-cassette recorder, and several other pieces of customized equipment. Soviet television has better color and higher resolution than American television. When Schaffer first turned on the monitor for a test, Jonathan Sanders, the assistant director of the Harriman Institute, was flabbergasted: the picture was better than the one he was used to seeing on his own TV.

On the Siberian news the day I stopped by Columbia someone was addressing the Supreme Soviet. Like most Russian orators, this man rumbled along soporifically, seldom lifting his eyes from his text. It began to seem possible that his speech would last until the end of time. The camera occasionally cut to the audience, whose members were solemn and heavy-lidded; all they had to keep them awake was the prospect of voting unanimously in favor of whatever it was that was being said. Later there was a report on the disaster at the Union Carbide plant in India. (American misdeeds and misfortunes receive thorough coverage on the Russian news. Both the New York nurses’ strike and the San Diego McDonald’s massacre had gotten lots of air time, according to one of the graduate students present. The Union Carbide coverage, though, was very understated; the footage wasn’t nearly so graphic as that which the American networks had shown the night before. There were no grieving parents, no dead bodies, no funeral pyres.) The newscast ended with the weather lady: — 17, — 22, —9, —14, 15, 19, —3, —5, —1, —6. If for no other reason than that, it was nice to be an American that day.

Programma I doesn’t have a rigid schedule. The news ends when the newsreaders run out of news to read. On some days they finish in ten or fifteen minutes; on others they go on for more than an hour. After the credits had rolled, we moved on to the morning exercise show, a great favorite at the Harriman Institute. A muscular man and woman grimly marched in place, to the accompaniment of a piano. Their expressions were sober and ideologically correct, although both occasionally permitted themselves small smiles. The graduate students knew the exercises by heart: “This is the duck dance.” If Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons had suddenly walked onto the set, all four exercisers would have vanished in a flash, matter and anti-matter colliding.

At last it was time for what the students call Million-Ruble Movie. That day’s offering was the second half of a Lithuanian suspense film, Collision. As in virtually all Soviet movies, the colors were muted and earthy—no bright reds or blues, no razzle-dazzle. But the cinematography was skillful and really quite beautiful. After about fifteen minutes, though, the film suddenly stopped, cutting off one of the actors in mid-word. Was something wrong? No. DEAR COMRADES, said a sign on the screen, WE DECLARE A TEN-MINUTE TECHNICAL BREAK. The sound track switched to loud, fast music, with lots of ringing bells. It was meant to wake up the Siberian downlink operators, who have to stop snoozing long enough to move those big antennas.

A few minutes later the movie came back on (the picture was sharper—the first Molniya had been ailing) and the actor finished his word. Collision is set in a hospital. Several doctors were walking around in surgical gowns. They looked just like American doctors, with one peculiar difference: their noses stuck out over the tops of their surgical masks. The graduate students have noticed this in other films.

The students at the Harriman Institute have picked up a lot of interesting trivia about the Soviet Union by watching Programma I. A few weeks before my visit they had discovered that Russian drivers keep their windshield wipers in their glove compartments. When it starts to rain, the drivers pull over and attach the wipers. When the rain stops, they pull over again and remove them. It seems that a rubber shortage a number of years ago prompted someone to steal wipers from someone else, who then stole some from someone else, and so on, until windshield wipers in glove compartments became part of Russia’s cultural heritage. The students have also learned that people and wheat almost never appear together on the Russian television screen. Wheat doesn’t grow very tall in the Soviet Union, and in order to play down this fact the wheat harvest is usually filmed with no recognizable reference point (a day seldom passes on Programma I without a story about wheat or tractors or both). The camera is held down close to the ground, to make the field look like a forest. Harvesting equipment is shown only from a great distance. But every now and then, the Harriman students said, you can see a farmer standing in the background, the amber waves of grain lapping at his knees.

Later on we watched a Nova-like documentary about a brave new technological breakthrough. In an apartment complex in Moscow, the narrator explained, an elite group of scientists was conducting an exciting experiment. The camera focused on a control box mounted on a wall. Then it followed some wires down into the basement. Then there was an interview with an expert in a white lab coat. The documentary, it turned out, was about automatic heat control. Thermostats, comrades! Still later we watched another scientific program, a popular series whose name means, roughly, Believe It or Not (a literal translation, one student said, would be Obvious and Unbelievable). That episode concerned an ancient scientist whose name was recognized by no one in the room. He was slumped in a chair. “He has one book on his table always,”intoned the narrator. “Faust.” The camera regarded him protractedly, as though waiting for his last words. The show was completely believable and incredibly boring.

But ours was a privileged tedium; we were the only people in America watching live Programma I. This wouldn’t be true for long. Schaffer was holding discussions with other potential customers, including several universities, the United States Information Agency, the Defense Department, and the Soviet Embassy (“Everybody wants to watch hometown telly,” Schaffer said). And he was planning to take his show on the road. He had rigged up a Molniya tracking system on a trailer and was offering colleges the chance to book an evening of live Russian TV. He was also planning an even more ambitious international-television project: a system that will pick up live transmissions from fifteen countries simultaneously and display them on a bank of monitors arranged in a semicircle. A viewer will be able to stand in the middle and watch the world.

“It’s rock-and-roll,” Schaffer had told me earlier in the day. “It’s electronics, it’s media, it’s peace. I don’t care about ‘peace’ peace; that’s a software concept. I’m just talking about having the opportunity for an error.”Like many Schaffer pronouncements, that one was fairly cryptic. (After a certain point in our lengthy interview, which I nonetheless enjoyed enormously, I stopped changing the tape in my recorder and simply turned the same cassetteover and over.) But I know more or less what he meant. He sees satellite television as an instrument for global understanding. (“I have to pay back for Alice Cooper.”) No country, not even the Soviet Union, can seem entirely foreign once you’ve gotten to know its weather lady. This is why Schaffer is eager to sell his tracking system to the Defense Department. Even if military planners start out thinking of their dish as nothing more than a piece of spy equipment, he says, in time they’ll learn what the students at the Harriman Institute have learned: that life in the Soviet Union, though different from life in America, is still life. Schaffer doesn’t ask that the planners forget about the missiles in Russian submarines. But the world would be a safer place, he believes, if every once in a while they would also think about the windshield wipers in Russian glove compartments.

ARTHUR C. CLARKE LIVES IN SRI LANKA. HE PUT A DISH in his yard in 1975, but it blew7 over. This wasn’t a big loss. There hadn’t been anything to watch except one channel of Indian television, which had been devoted mostly to Indira Gandhi. By 1983, though, the programming available on satellite had improved, and Robert Cooper, the publisher of Coop’s Satellite Digest, got to thinking that the man who had conceived of satellite television ought to be able to watch it. So he organized an expedition to put a new dish in Clarke’s yard.

Clarke is a mystical presence in the world of satellite TV. “There are these gravity wells around the planet,” John Zelenka, one of the people who went along on Cooper’s expedition, told me. “There are some places over the equator where the earth’s gravity is so strong that satellites placed there don’t need fuel, because they never drift out of position. It turns out that one of the most stable places on the planet is directly above the piece of property that Arthur bought in Sri Lanka. It makes you wonder where this man came from.”

Zelenka works for a New York company called Star Video, which, among other things, installs commercial antenna systems and provides uplinks and downlinks for business teleconferences. He has green-and-purple-tinted glasses and a gold earring. Like Kenny Schaffer, he came to satellite television from the world of rock-and-roll. He was a guitarist and a sound technician before he installed his first dish, for the publisher Nelson Doubleday. The Doubleday installation was touch and go. Zelenka didn’t quite know what he was doing. He’d never actually seen a dish before Doubleday’s arrived. But finally he figured that he had everything right, and he went inside to test the system. He turned on the television set. There was static, then a picture. It was 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Stanley Kubrick movie based on a story by Arthur C. Clarke.

“It seems likely that the twenty-four-hour orbit will be of fundamental importance for the future of world communications,” Clarke wrote in 1956. It’s astonishing to think that until very recently “variety” on American television consisted of three indistinguishable networks broadcasting three indistinguishable schedules. Satellite-fed cable TV has often been criticized for failing to live up to expectations: most of the new channels, people complain, aren’t all that interesting. But in comparison with what was available before, the line-up these days is dramatically various. Gavel-to-gavel coverage of Congress, news around the clock, the weather, rock-and-roll, most of Boston College’s 1984 football schedule, FutbolInternational, life aboard the space shuttle, Japanese variety shows, the New York Stock Exchange ticker, recent movies, The Brady Bunch, naked women. None of it is terribly profound, but neither is most of life.

Watching satellite television probably won’t be as much fun in the future as it has been over the past few years. Probably all the premium services will eventually scramble their signals, and the networks will probably scramble most of their feeds. No more Max Robinsons. But maybe someday a cable system will follow Kenny Schaffer’s suggestion and offer Programma I to American viewers. Or maybe Mexican television will catch on in Canada. Satellite television has made the world a little cozier; the globe is shrinking under the Clarke Belt.

“I’m totally sold on Arthur,” Zelenka says. “Communications satellites have made space a place.”

Splace. □