The Orioles-Texas Rangers baseball game that was being broadcast from Arlington, Tex., fritzed off the television screen Tuesday night at 10:17 p.m. -- leaving Washington-area fans watching blank screens and wondering who to call.
Just as baffled was Baltimore station WMAR-TV (Channel 2), which transmits Oriole games to a network of stations including WDCA in Washington and other stations in Richmond, Norfolk and Winston-Salem.
The perils of television transmission via satellite rest not only with malfunctioning satellites, but also with systems relaying broadcast signals over the ground to earth stations and earth stations that send to and receive the signals from satellites, said Joe Bruno, director of engineering for Baltimore's WMAR.
When a problem occurs, it is not immediately possible to find out if the problem is in a satellite or in the ground portion of the transmission system, Bruno said. Furthermore, a complex tangle of owners, leasers and brokers for all parts of the television satellite transmission system make figuring out who to call -- and who to blame -- more difficult.
"Life doesn't get better as you go on -- it gets worse," Bruno said. "The advancements in technology are supposed to make things better, but we push it to the limit and they don't go smoother. But we cope."
Fortunately, WMAR had programming to substitute for the hole on people's TV sets, but other stations, including Washington's Channel 20, offered only a blank screen to TV viewers for a solid 46 minutes. There was sound for a while; then that, too, disappeared.
By mid-afternoon yesterday, WMAR ascertained that the problem had occurred in the microwave system that relays broadcast signals to the earth station, which then sends it to the satellite.
The satellite's ultimate owner is Western Union Telegraph Co., but Group W Satellite Communications has bought a spot on the whirling orb in a "condominium arrangement," Bruno said. Transmission arrangements over both the ground segment and satellite facilities are made through yet another company, New York-based Hughes Television Network, which functions as a broker, Bruno said.
The microwave system that transmits the signal to the earth station is owned by CTM Communications in Washington, said Bruno, who did not know who owned the earth station.
"It's not really a Hughes problem until Hughes has to use it again -- which is tonight for us," said Bruno of his broker -- who shares the use of the microwave system owned by CTM with still other brokers arranging transmission facilities for other networks.
Meanwhile, WMAR is withholding a $1,000 payment from broker Hughes for the 46 minutes of transmission even though "CTM would be responsible for the outage," and the broker finally found an alternate route for the signals, Bruno said.
Fortunately, broadcasters in the area only have such problems about once a year, he said, but when failures happen they are attributable to the earth stations or American Telephone & Telegraph Co. phone lines and private microwave systems used to get signals to the earth stations.
"The satellite generally is the most reliable part of the transmission," Bruno said. "That's probably because a satellite costs $10 million and an [earth station] costs half a million."