Why Life Is Now More Fun: For Billions, Satellite TV Is the Most Important Thing in Space. How Has It Changed Them? (Space)
Cox, David, New Statesman (1996)
The idea of transmitting television from satellites in space was first floated (in Wireless World in 1945) by 2001 author Arthur C Clarke. And from the beginning, the concept had the ring of science fiction. Beaming pictures and sounds from the heavens was not just a more inspiring idea than spewing them from gawky, hilltop structures. It raised the hope that our capacity to disseminate thoughts, ideas and dreams might be freed from the grip of the powerful. Humanity's very nature might change, it was thought, as barriers to enlightenment tumbled and horizons became boundless.
During the early days, this seemed to be starting to happen. In 1975, India began to broadcast services to six of its most backward states by satellite. Villagers would gather each evening in front of a communal TV to watch programmes on science, agriculture, family planning and health. As a result, ploughing methods changed, new seed types were adopted and pest control was improved. Soon, worthy information was being accompanied by heady dramas about previously taboo topics such as economic exploitation, the caste system and bride burning.
Today, celestial television still offers manna for the human spirit. Those Indian villagers now have a 24-hour educational satellite channel. The Arab world has been lit up during the Afghan hostilities by the uncensored, transnational reporting of the al-Jazeera satellite station. MED-TV holds the scattered Kurdish nation together from Transponder 117. Iraqis can watch uncensored news, chat and interviews on the exiled opposition station, Liberty TV.
But the real story of satellite television has had little to do with truth, learning or political freedom. Television needs gloss, glamour and high production values if it is to captivate. These things require money, and money is the preserve of the powerful. Thus, al-Jazeera will shortly find itself up against a half-billion-dollar, 24-hour, 26-language rival for the eyes and ears of the Muslim world. The new comer will be run by the US government.
Yet the satellite punch of capitalist governments has proved as nothing compared to the punch packed by capitalism itself. As those Indian villagers were getting their nightly fix of agricultural guidance, Home Box Office was starting the first commercial satellite broadcasting system. In 1976, it brought its viewers the Ali-Frazier "Thrilla from Manila" live, and doubled subscriber uptake. Throughout North America and then Europe, satellite went on to demolish steam TV's cosy oligopoly. …