Ted Turner was the first to see super stations coming, but even he doesn't know where they're going to go next. And if Turner gets a thrill out of the business equivalent of hurtling through the fog with spinnaker set, it gives his colleagues in the marketplace the willies.
Consider the case of the "other" super station, WGN in Chicago.
"Let me say first that we have absolutely nothing to do with our signal being out on the satellite," said William H. Wills, public relations director. "The satellite pays us nothing, and we have no say over it at all.
"Frankly, it's becoming a nightmare. All this is so new, and there isn't any precedent.The other day I got a call from the Yukon Territory, and it was a cable company there asking for our weekly schedule for Feb. 1. That's when they're going to start getting WGN -- and we didn't even know it. I got the same call from Rattlesnake, Mont. In effect, this is costing us money, because our schedule request list is up 200 percent."
What happened was that a common carrier in Tulsa asked the FCC if it could pick up WGN and sell it, and the FCC said okay.
What the Yukon will get is everything WGN broadcasts, including 4 1/2 hours of local programming before 1 p.m. Chicago time; a two-hour variety show; a children's program called "Bozo Circus" which has an eight-year waiting list for admission to its studio audience; the Phil Donahue show, which happens to be produced at WGN; and all 142 Chicago Cubs games -- more baseball than any other channel offers.
Nobody has to pay WGN.
"I guess we're flattered," said Willis. "We're not mad. And maybe someday we could raise our ad rates if we wanted to. But we're certainly not going after it like Turner in Atlanta. He owns the whole ball of wax there, but nobody really knows going to happen next."
Since any independent TV station is ripe for the satellite plucking, just as WGN was, Turner's stance puzzles and worries many fellow station owners, many of whom look upon Turner as an adversary.
None is so outraged, however, as the producers and distributors of the shows that are going to Alaska, West Virginia and Honolulu on a free ride by COMSAT 1.
"Sure the revolution is here. But the problem is that you've got cable systems competing for free with the same product broadcasters have to buy," says Katrina Renouf, a fiery Washington lawyer representing the National Association of Independent Television Producers and Distributors.
"Shows like 'Hee-Haw' and 'Laurence Welk' are extremely well established in over 200 markets, but satellites wipe out the potential markets by the dozens at a time. The only protection is under the copyright law, and it's zippety-doo-dah.
"All we've got to sell is first-time distribution. And if some cable system in Okeefenokee steals a show and puts it on in Smyrna or someplace, it's already been used. It's already been used .
"The ironic thing is that the FCC says this is a neato idea because it maximizes the number of programs people can see. But if it maximizes it by letting Joe Schmoe steal my program, I ain't going to make programs anymore. I am positively buffaloed by the commission's inability to understand this."
As for whether program suppliers could raise their rates to reflect the greater range of distribution, Renouf replies: "Hell, we're dealing with hundreds of independent systems, how're you going to tell? And if broadcasters aren't being paid, where are they going to get the extra money? It's just not a self-correcting situation."
William Johnson of the FCC has heard the question before: How is it that a station is powerless to prevent the sale of its own signal by another company?
"The common carrier that picks up the signal and transmits it by satellite isn't responsible for its content, so it doesn't have to pay for the signal," said Johnson, who is chief of the policy review and development division of the Cable TV Bureau. "That would be like making the phone company pay for a crime committed over the phone."
"The cable system operators don't have to pay the station either, because a cable system is just a big antenna, and just because several people share an antenna doesn't mean they have to pay. The satellite is looked upon as just a big antenna, too."
Johnson acknowledges that the advent of new technology is causing confusion. "What happened is that when these principles were established, they made sense. Now, when everything is expanding so fast, they don't seem to fit."
Metromedia, which owns seven television stations well distributed across the nation, carries the point a good deal further.
"We might take a civil suit on this, if they continue to steal our product," said Thomas J. Dougherty, associate general counsel based in Washington. Satellite pick-up of Metromedia's Channel 11 in Los Angeles is "a simple case of taking our property without our permission so a third party can sell it. We object. I don't know if we would agree even if we were paid money."
Dougherty says Metromedia doesn't know if any other of its stations is being distributed by orbiting hardware: "And how could we know? Since they're stealing our stuff, they're not likely to tell us."
The way Dougherty looks at it, "Turner thinks he's invented the wheel all over again." But Bill Schwartz, station manager of Channel 2 in Oakland, which also finds itself appearing all over the map by satellite, asked if Turner's plan is likely to earn him another $100 million
"My business sense says no," Schwartz said. "But I wouldn't ever bet against Turner."