Two years ago out in Arcadia, Okla., Rick Schneringer flicked on his television, fiddled with the dial and flopped down on the couch. It was late afternoon in Arcadia, midnight in Moscow, 8 in the morning in Vladivostok and a "Good Morning, Siberia" was on the air, live via satellite.
"It was the darndest show," said Schneringer. "With a little manipulation I'd been getting the Moscow Olympics all week, and then this show came on. I flipped my wig. Strange show. They spent a lot of time on it trying to show how American spies keep secrets in their boots or under their tongues."
Schneringer, president of Satellite TV Technology, a company "dedicated to the promotion of home satellite receivers," pulled in Soviet morning programming with a concave dish connected to his home television. Until now, the idea of hooking up a satellite receiver, or "earth station," for personal use was, if not wholly fantastic, at least fantastically expensive--Neiman-Marcus featured a Comsat "earth station" for $36,000 in its 1979 catalogue. But the price is dropping and the idea is catching.
Larry Holmes has one.
So do Rich Little, Barry Goldwater, Randolph Hearst Jr. and the offices of the House of Representatives. Corporations such as Avon and Ford, and Eskimos from Newfoundland to Greenland all use satellite receivers for electronically coordinated meetings or "teleconferences."
Entrepreneur Ted Turner gave Daniel Schorr an "earth station" for his back yard two years ago. "I may have been the first person in the Washington area to have one," said Schorr, senior Washington correspondent for the Turner-owned Cable News Network. "Turner asked me how my kids were going to be able to see me on television since there isn't any cable in Washington. So he gave me the dish. It was a gift."
But if you don't happen to have a boss as generous as Ted Turner and you want to own the latest in Video Chic, a satellite dish is still a considerable investment. "If you want to spend around $12,000 you can get a unit with all the bells and whistles," says Schneringer. "But you can get a perfectly adequate system for around $3,000 to $5,000. You can also buy a kit for $2,000 and build one yourself." Andy Hatfield, president of the Virginia-based AVCON satellite concern, estimates there are "at least 100 satellite owners in the Washington area, but I wouldn't be surprised if there are three times that number."
An "earth station" is made up of three components: a satellite dish, a low-noise amplifier (LNA) and a receiver. The dish is generally 10 to 12 feet in diameter and must be set on a sturdy, generally concrete, foundation and must not be blocked by overhanging roofs or trees. Since the signal transmitted from satellites 22,300 miles above the equator can be weak or distorted, the LNA is necessary to amplify the signal and improve reception. The receiver looks like the channel tuner on an ordinary television set and basically does the same thing--except the satellite pulls in 50 to 60 channels, with more to come in the future. With some systems it is even possible to watch "The Tonight Show" before the NBC censors set scissors to videotape.
One popular misconception is that with a satellite dish a viewer in the United States can pull in just about any signal from any satellite.
That isn't true. While the heavens grow more crowded with satellites every day, only a few are both designed for television transmissions and able to reach the continental United States. The range of a satellite is called its "footprint," and an "earth station" owner can sit down to broadcasts of British news or French theater only if that show has first been beamed to a European satellite and then to one of the satellites that has the appropriate "footprint." When the "earth station" is initially installed, it is aimed toward one of the main satellites; in order to redirect the angle of the satellite dish, it must be adjusted either by hand or by a remote orientation system attached to the television.
Without breaking the law, an "earth station" owner also can "listen in" on most cable stations free of charge. Schneringer claims that whenever anyone tries to pay cable TV companies for listening in, the checks are mailed back. The stations have contracts with movie studios that disallow remuneration on an individual basis. Not that the cable companies are happy with the situation--some, like Home Box Office, have announced multimillion dollar plans to scramble their signals.
While the large, 10-to-12-foot "earth stations" require a sizable bank account and suitable clearance--making such technology impossible for many city dwellers--it is possible to buy a dish that is only two to three feet in diameter, about a quarter to a tenth the price of its big brother and, quite possibly, the real comer in satellite technology.
The Federal Communications Commission recently confirmed the legality of direct broadcast satellites. The decision could deeply affect the television industry, since DBS owners would be able to bypass cable subscription companies and have more alternatives to the usual network offerings. While the big "earth stations" are still state-of-the-art and more powerful, the more affordable dishes may become a common sight on rooftops and in back yards around the country. The FCC also ruled that the new broadcasters will not be required to include community service programming.
Many in the satellite industry say that the new technology is designed above all for people in remote areas of the country, where reception is either poor or nonexistent.
"There are 3 million homes out there that can't get more than a couple of stations and a lot who get just about nothing," says Schneringer. "I just had a forest ranger out in Idaho tell me that there's more snow on his TV than there is on the ground in January."
If the seers of satellites are right, even the lonely ranger in deepest Idaho soon will be able to tune in to "Love Boat" with the rest of us.