The History of Satellite TV – A Vision for the Future

Arthur C. Clarke wasn't thinking "satellite tv" when he wrote an article called “Extraterrestrial Relays”, but the seed was planted. The article, which was published in “Wireless World Magazine” in 1945, started the wheels of progress in motion. Mr. Clarke was a futurist, well ahead of his time. This became obvious when he wrote his book, “2001, A Space Odyssey” which became an eternally favorite movie. He had no idea what an impact his ideas would have on the future of communications. But impact they did!

In his article, Mr. Clarke wrote that by placing three space platforms into special orbits 22,300 miles above the equator, worldwide communications could be received. The first people to explore the actual reality of this idea were the Russians. They launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, on October 4, 1957. This launch caught the United States completely off-guard, as they’d been planning the launch of their own satellite. And the race was on!

The United States’ answer came on January 1, 1958, when they successfully launched Explorer I, carrying a small scientific payload that eventually discovered the magnetic radiation belts around the Earth. This launch was part of the United States’ program for the International Geophysical Year, 1957-1958. The Sputnik launch also led directly to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in July 1958.

Satellites are in orbit – What Next?

And thus the birth of satellites. But now, in the name of technological progress, new ideas became evident – what else could be done with these satellites? What other uses could they have? The wheels of progress were definitely in motion now! Arthur C. Clarke’s idea of world communications now seemed to be feasible.

While NASA was devising ways to travel in space, private companies formed an international consortium that put a network of geosynchronous satellites in orbit. “Geosynchronous” means exactly what Mr. Clarke suggested – a satellite in geosynchronous orbit appears to “hover” over one spot on the Equator. To do this, it must travel at the same speed as the Earth’s rotation. So that means that a receiving satellite dish on the Earth can point at the satellite at one spot in the sky and not have to “track” its motion.

The Birth of Satellite TV

In 1976, Home Box Office (HBO) made history by initiating satellite delivery of programming to cable with the heavyweight boxing match know as “The Thriller From Manila”. Also in 1976, as a result of his private experiments with video transmission from communications satellites, the first consumer Direct To Home (DTH) Satellite System was created in a most unusual place – in the garage of Stanford University Professor and former NASA scientist Emeritus H. Taylor Howard. It was a large dish-shaped antenna that he used to pick up programs that cable TV content providers offered for distribution to their subscribers.

When Mr. Howard wrote a check for $100 to HBO to pay for movies he had watched, the company returned his check, saying that it dealt only with large cable companies, not individuals. Howard then published a how-to-do-it manual on his system. Soon afterward, with mechanical engineer Bob Taggart, he co-founded Chaparral Communications Inc. of San Jose to produce the parts for the system that he continued to improve. Within six years, Chaparral became a $50 million company.

Back in 1977, Pat Robertson launched the first satellite-delivered basic cable service called the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), later The Family Channel. Others followed suit, such as Turner Broadcasting System (TBS). Also, there was the establishment of SPACE, the Society for Private and Commercial Earth Stations (the Satellite Television Industry Association, Inc.) and COMSAT/Satellite Television Corporation’s request to construct and operate a Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) system. The satellite TV industry was growing!

Free Satellite TV Comes…and Goes

From 1981 to 1985, the “big-dish” C-Band satellite market began to take off. System sales soared as hardware prices fell, and the idea of a practical DBS system was beginning to take shape. The advantages to consumers were abounding! There were many satellites used by programmers, and consumers could get programming from almost all of them. And because their programming came from multiple sources, it was often 20-30% cheaper than cable. And the quality was exceptional! That was because the signal was first generation – that is, directly from the programmers to their homes – providing a far superior picture and sound quality.

As with most new technological advancements, the cost to the everyday consumer was very high. In 1980, a satellite tv system cost approximately $10,000. But by 1985, the prices on the systems dropped to about $3000 each. As the price came down, more people looked to the multiple-channel capabilities of satellite TV as an alternative to cable. The programming was free during these years. People made a one-time purchase of a system and received more than 100 channels, including every basic and premium cable service…free!

Of course, just as the founders of the “dot-com” industry realized, if you give products and services away free, you don’t make a profit. So several cable programming providers lobbied the government, which subsequently introduced the 1984 Cable Act, allowing them to encrypt (convert into code) their satellite feeds. Scrambling systems were developed so their signals were no longer broadcast “in the clear” for everyone with a satellite dish to pick up without any payment to the program developers. Free dish satellite TV programming was outlawed! 

Satellite TV Dishes Shrink – as the Industry Grows

The first immediate result of the Cable Act was that the satellite sales industry dramatically dropped. The other immediate effect was the emergence of a new threat to the industry – satellite signal theft. Of the approximately 2 million units manufactured between 1986 and 1995, less than 500,000 were legally receiving services. However, in December 1986, the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association (SBCA) was founded as a result of a merger between SPACE and the Direct Broadcast Satellite Association. It was a task force which quickly seized a good hold on the problem in 1993, severely impacting the amount of people stealing satellite TV signals.

In the early 1990’s, four large cable companies launched a Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) system called Primestar. In 1994, the Hughes DIRECTV Satellite System was launched. These systems provided great pictures and stereo sound on 150-200 video and audio channels, and the small digital satellite TV dish era began in a serious way.

From 1992 to the present, the satellite picture has become much brighter. The satellite television industry has grown to over 18 million subscribers, making it one of the hottest and fastest growing consumer electronics products of all time. Newer encryption systems have worked to reduce the problem of broadcast security. Small-dish DBS systems have become a reality, creating a huge new market for satellite broadcast services. The big-dish C-Band continues to hold a core group of subscribers, many of whom were the industry’s early adapters. Favourable legislation has removed many of the former obstacles of dish ownership, and the industry has seen the delivery of interactive TV services, two-way high-speed Internet access via satellite, and the emergence of satellite radio – a long way from one man’s vision in 1945…and a long way still to go!

About The Author

Gareth Marples is a freelance writer for hire providing valuable tips and advice for consumers in satellite tv, high-definition (HD) televisions, related components, home theater systems, flat screen TV stands and more. His numerous articles offer moneysaving tips and valuable insight on typically confusing topics.

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