Academic journal article Journalism History

"A New Age of Diplomacy": International Satellite Television and Town Meeting of the World

Academic journal article Journalism History

"A New Age of Diplomacy": International Satellite Television and Town Meeting of the World

Article excerpt

With the advent of international satellite television in the early 1960s, a whole range of new communicative possibilities presented itself. Even a decade later, the capability of satellites to supply instantaneous links to faraway spots on the globe, and to provide new dimensions of connections between peoples, still seemed to hold unfulfilled promise. The well-known science fiction author Isaac Asimov wrote in 1970 that satellite communication represented a "revolution" in the course of society: "There will be the kind of immediacy possible over all the world as had hitherto existed only at the level of the village. In fact, we will have what has been called the global village."1 Asimov went on to predict that by the year 2000 at the latest, humanity would either have made significant progress toward minimizing overpopulation, inequality, and international conflict thanks to satellite communication, or else contemporary society would "be in its death throes."2

The launch of the first communication satellite in 1962 meant not just carrying television pictures from one point to another on the globe, but also-in the imaginations of many-hopes for a better world. To the extent that communication barriers are seen as the root of misunderstandings among cultures, new communication technologies appear as antidotes to world conflict, even today. For some in the 1960s, the dreams bordered on science fiction: increased understanding, leading to worldwide peace and an end to armed conflict. The satellite launch created a link between the United States and Europe with unprecedented immediacy, and American broadcasters developed plans to take advantage of it. One of those plans was particularly ambitious: CBS News developed a program that tapped into the idea of American-style participatory democracy and freedom of speech, expanded to a global level via international live television. The result was a series called Town Meeting of the World.

The debut of this televised forum in 1963 led one journalist at the time to write that the venture "stands out as one of the rare efforts to create programming for satellite transmission."3 That rare effort carried the televised international forum live into American homes; world leaders engaged with each other and studio guests on issues of the day. Viewers in Europe were also to watch the program live via a signal beamed to a ground station in western France, but a decision by the French authorities to deny permission for use of their facility put an abrupt end to that aspect of the grand vision. European audiences did eventually see the program via film flown to that continent. But the incident led one American journalist to sound an ominous note: "[T]he incident throws new light on the importance of diversity of control over the channels of communication within nations as they approach each other in the unexplored space of international television communication."4 This interruption of the maiden transnational telecast of Town Meeting highlighted the potential for idealistic visions of global television to clash with the reality of national interests in ways the American public and American journalists often found frustrating.

The idea behind the Town Meeting program, and its reception among the American public, reflects an almost utopian sense of optimism about the capacity of technology in general, and communication technology in particular, to reverse some of the nagging problems of the day. The 1960s witnessed growing nationalist movements in many parts of the world, a dangerous rise in Cold War tensions, and an emerging quagmire in Vietnam that threatened the U.S.'s moral position as a democratic superpower. Over the course of the 1960s, Town Meeting of the World telecasts (and American reaction to them) reflected increasing tension between excitement over the potential to promote Americanstyle electronic democracy on a global scale, and irritation over the realities of resistance to American influence overseas. …

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