Jerry Peake settles into a chair in the den of his Rockville home. Embers glow in the fireplace, and steam from a roast in the oven fogs the windows; Sunday dinner will be ready in an hour.
On his television set, Peake slowly displays the programming available to viewers in the Washington area: Bullets basketball, three old movies, a sports show, two public television programs and the new Howard University channel. Because he lives north of the city and has a high-quality rooftop antenna, Peake even picks up the Baltimore stations, which duplicate much of the television offered in Washington. In all, he's found eight Washington and three Baltimore Channels.
"Now watch," Peake says, flipping the remote tuner in his hand. Suddenly the screen fills with programming that would astonish the 3 million viewers in the local television market, even the few thousand who subscribe to cable TV. Twisting a special dial, he displays:
Two Spanish programs; New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta TV station shows; an X-rated movie channel; Canadian, Mexican and Brazilian television, the Christian Broadcast Network, black television programming, a Catholic TV network and much more -- dozens of channels.
He pulls in the ABC, CBS, and NBC networks in New York as they send their affiliates programs for today and later in the week, and video and sound clips that will be strung together with a text later in the evening and read by local news personalities." He picks up all of the basketball and hockey games played today and broadcast by the big networks back to home towns across the country. He also picks up two all-sports networks and movie channels such as Home Box Office and Warner-Amex, as well as a senior citizens' network.
He watches a French soap opera set in a monastery and next week's Friday night movie running without commercial interruptions. Then comes a televised kidney operation taking place in a U.S. Naval hospital on the west coast and connected via TV with kidney specialists at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
Spinning the dial, Peake finds a fundamentalist preacher, John Wayne rounding up cattle, the elegance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and Max Robinson reading the afternoon news from Chicago.
"But hold on," Peake says, "There's a whole lot more."
He walks out the front door to a "radar dish" set in cement just outside the den windows. Unloosening a bolt, he applies his weight to the dish and rotates it a few inches. In the den again, he settles back into the chair and begins showing a new round of dozens of channels equally unknown in the Washington area.
"Magic, isn't it?" Peake asks.
A hard-nosed Rockville businessman and self-taught electronics buff, Peake has discovered that the family television set need no longer be dependent on terrestrial TV signals or cable connections. He sidestepped these traditional conduits by installing his own satellite earth station, technically known as TRVO -- television receiver only. By aiming the 10-foot side dish at each of the 12 communications satellites stationed over North American, he pulls in more than 160 channels.
And, as he demonstrates, Peake can unbolt the dish and aim it at still other satellites, including international communications system linking America with the rest of the world, as well as foreign satellite systems overseas serving South American and European countries and even the Soviet Union. (Peake could have watched the 1980 SummerOlympics in Moscow, for example).
In today's world, communications satellites are the supertankers that move vast amounts of information over great distances more reliably and far cheaper than traditional land-line, undersea cable or microwave tower connections. Twenty-four hours a day they bathe much of the world in a shower of transmissions. These include not only television, but telephone, telegraph and computer-to-computer hookups for businesses and government. (Indeed, the ill-fated attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran was delayed in part so the United States could put into orbit a special connunications satellite over Iran to create a direct Washington - to - the rescuers linkup).
So successful and relaible are communications satellites that in the United States today practically every network TV show, movie and sporting event and almost all of cable TV programming is shipped to local stations via these satellites. Like the international systems, domestic communications satellites also carry telephone, telegraph and computer-to-computer signals.
With minor adjustments to the equipment he presently owns, Peake could -- if he wanted to -- intercept long distance telephone calls, business information such as the Reuter financial news wire, credit card and bank transactions and other information moving via satellites. (Peake has neither the equipment nor the plans to acquire it, believing such interceptions to be both immoral and illegal.)
Nevertheless, all that's needed to receive the communication satellite signal is a TVRO, which uses simple microwave technology. When connected to a parabolic antenna -- like the dish beside Peake's house which is aimed at the satellites -- the TRVO captures the transmissions falling to earth from the satellites and amplifies them so that any home television set can use the signals.
Communications satellites were developed in the 1960s by U.S. space scientists. Like the Soviet Sputnik of 1957 and the U.S. Explorer satellite of 1958, the early communications satellites were launched a few hundred miles into space where their orbits carried them around the globe about once an hour.
Scientists speculated it would require scores of such satellites and huge earth receivers to create a workable communications system. But thanks to science fiction written in 1945 by Kenneth Clark, then an obscure British radio technician, a simpler system was found. Clark theorized a two-hemisphere radio link could be established by rocketing a satellite into orbit about 23,000 miles above the earth. At that distance, the speeding satellite would appear to hover directly over one spot on the globe, the way a parent racing madly around a merry-go-round to comfort a child looks stationary to the child. The same satellite would direct its radio signal back to earth like a flashlight aimed at a tennis ball, covering almost half the globe with its signal.
Clark was right. In the past 15 years or so, more that 50 nonmilitary communications satellites have been launched by the United States, the Soviet Union and international consortia, all modeled on Clark's hypothesis. s
In the United States more than 20 applications are awaiting government approval from private communications companies such as Estern Union, RCA and AT&T to launch still more domestic satellites. New satellites could be used for more TV channels, a postal service plan for electronic mail and new business communication services.
At the same time, the Washington - based International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (intelsat) plans to launch nine satellites into orbit in the next few years to double the number of television and telephone transmissions that can be handled simultaneously amoung the United States and about 140 Intelsat members countries.
The Japanese, French, German, Canadian, Mexican and other governments plan to launch new domestic communications satellites of their own in the next decade. And recently the Soviet Union began selling the excess TV capacity on its domestic communications satellites to Europeans who could not buy satellite time on the overbooked systems operating there.
The glorious thing about the Clark scheme is that by keeping the satellite stationary, the equipment needed to receive signals on earth can be simple: a reliable "ear" is built and aimed so radio waves fall on it like rain on a barn roof. However, the United States and other international bodies for years required immensely expensive TVROs -- along with confusing technical procedures -- before such an antenna could be licensed for operation.
Peake was able to tap into the satellite network thanks to Federal Communications Commission rules changes that dropped design requirements on earth stations, which pegged their cost at $100,000 and up, and abolished most of the paperwork connected with ownership of one. Then -- as now -- there was no U.S. government prohibition against an individual's owning a TVRO, but the FCC required the owner of each dish to file exhaustive technical reports from an accredited engineering company discribing the equipment in detail. Few individuals could afford the time and cost of filing, which ran between $1,500 and $2,000 annually.
Before the rule changes only about 4,000 major commercial cable and broadcast TV companies were listening in on the signals from the satellites. Now, industry sources say, more than 5,000 TVROs have been installed in American backyards at prices from $1,000 to $10,000 and about 800 more low-cost TVRO dishes are joining them each month.
"I don't know all about the space technology or the electrical engineering that goes into this stuff," conceded Peake, "But I don't have to. I don't know how my TV or CB radio works inside, but I can use them. The fact is that by familiarizing myself with the literature available to laymen on TVROs, I knew I could operate one of these units."
Peake's satellite odyssey began when he sent an $8,500 check to a small Chicago manufacturer selling component parts for home earth receivers. The pieces arrived on a flatbed truck, and he and some friends put the unit together one cold Sunday afternoon in January last year.
They quickly got it working, and using a compass and a little intuition, managed to aim the dish at the satellites. Then they retired to the Peake den with pizza and beer to see what they could see.
"It was absolutely amazing," Peake recalled. "Our old TV came alive with just beautiful television pictures and sound from the satellites and we spent the rest of the day and half the night going out of our minds over what this thing can bring into the home."
As the first private TVRO owner in the Washington area, Peake soon found himself demonstrating it to curious neighbors and scores of other interested persons. In twos and threes they came to his door to ask if they could see it work.
"People would just go bonkers," he said, "and it became clear that there was enough interest in the Washington area for a fellow too make some money if he knew how to get this into the hands of buyers."
So Peake last April incorporated a new business venture, Peake Satellite Communications (Peakecom), to do just that. Anyone whose home or property faces south, where the satellites are strung out in their orbits -- and not incidentally, can pay the $10,500 price -- can buy one.
His is not a basement enterprise, either. Peake is president of the Jerry Peake Co., a commercial antenna installing firm established by his father in 1945 and run today by Peake and his widowned mother. Their previous installations include standard TV and radio antennas for Blair House, the Capitol, National Airport, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the FCC.
Since beginning the new venture, Peake has installed five units in the Washington area and is negotiating sales to individuals and businesses such as bars, condominiums and hotels.
"Right now," he said, "I feel like my dad probably felt back in the '40s and '50s when he began installing TV antennas -- a pioneer at the brink of the frontier.
"Just like Dad then, I think this new television technology is going to revolutionize home entertainment like the little 10-inch boxes did when people first got them back in the days when all you could watch half the time was test patterns.
Not surprisingly, competitors have already sprung up. The second person in the Washington area to own a TVRO is Sam Conwell, president of Satellite Earth Systems, Inc., in Chantilly. SES entered the market last May with equipment similar to Peake's and has sold 12 units.
While Conwell shares Peake's enthusiasm for the future of TVROs, each appears committed to a different marketing approach. Peake is counting on installing commercial grade TVROs for individuals and businesses willing to pay high prices for a reliable, high-quality system. SES, on the other hand, looks to high-volume sales at lower prices.
"Like Jerry," said Cronwell, "we sell top-of-the-line commercial quality earth stations that any cable TV station would be happy to own. But we also think there's a market for cheaper and simpler equipment that an average homeowner would be happy with too, just like some people drive Cadillacs while others get by with a Volkeswagen."
SES's cheapest TVRO sells for $8,800 installed. The firm also markets a kit for $6,800, excluding shipping, for do-it-yourselfers, and plans to offer other models for as little as $4,000 unassembled.
Both Peake and Conwell demonstrate their wares using a mobile TVRO on a trailer, which can be driven right up to a potential customer's door.
"Shoot," said Conwell, a former used car salesman, "once Harry Homeowner sees it, the only question in his mind is, 'Do I have the money to spare for this?'
"People just go crazy. Why, I drove up to one old boy's place in the country last summer to show him how it worked and he didn't even say a word. Just pulled out his checkbook and bought it on the spot. The thing is, it was the only unit I had at the time, and when I got home that night my wife and kids were madder n' hell because we had to wait for my next shipment to come before we could watch the satellites again."
The point is, Conwell said, "Once you get a peek at this TV, the crap you're forced to watch under the old system will never satisfy you again."
However sanguine Peake and Conwell may be about the potential home market for TVROs, the companies using the 168 TV channels available over domestic communications satellites are not pleased that they no longer control access to their products.
This group includes network broadcasters, movie makers, suppliers of programming to the cable-TV business, made-for-TV movie producers, sports interests such as the National Football League, National Basketball Association and National Collegiate Athletic Association and other producers of TV programming such as the independent Walt Disney companies.
"Jerry Peake is a pirate," said Fritz E. Attaway, vice president of the Motion Picture Association of America, the powerful Washington Lobbying group that represents Hollywood movie-makers and others supplying programs via satellites.
"I'm sure your readers will be thrilled to know they can plug into all the cable and broadcast television floating around out there in space," Attaway said.
"But," he cautioned, although home satellite receiving stations are legal, "the problem just isn't that simple. In the first place, nothing is free. If enough people buy TVROs and watch our shows without paying for it either through cable fees or via the advertising mechanism which now supports free TV, the economics of TV programming may be well destroyed."
For years TV producers have invested money (about $3 billion last year) to make movies and other programming for television, while the networks and 1,500 individual broadcast station owners around the country charged advertisers whatever the market would bear (about $8 billion in 1979) to broadcast these shows.
Due to limitations of the television broadcast band on earth, the Federal Communication permitted only three or four TV channels to operate in a single market area. Viewers in each market watched what the local station provided free or via cable, and had no access to other TV.
But with National Public Broadcasting stations, more independent UHF stations and more than 4,000 cable TV companies, consumers' options are far greater today than just a few years ago.
The most important change -- so far as Peake and the TVRO owners are concerned -- has been the recent abandonment by cable and broadcast industries or land-line transmission of programming. It was only in October 1975 that Home Box Office, the Time-Life subsidiary that sells first-run movies to cable operators, began using a satellite to transmit its offerings. Today every cable network uses satellites and most long distance broadcast programming moves this way.
"That's where the problem lies, all right," Attaway said. "For, by using the satellites to move our product, we are completely vulnerable to anyone who has one of these dishes. They can bypass us, the traditional custodians or gatekeepers of television, and tap directly into the pipeline itself . . . .
"Whether you have any sympathy or not for our contention that these people are stealing our private property, to permit TVRO interception of satellite signals could have profound consequences in the near future. That's because these same satellites carrying television today also transmit phone calls, private financial data such as American Express charges, and sensitive business communications. The question is, do we want these communications to be private or not?"
However compelling the argument may be, since the foundation of the nation's communications laws were set in 1934 by the Federal Communications Act, test cases have established that radio and television signals belong to the public. Whatever satellite signals happen to fall on Jerry Peake's lawn are his.
To that end the Motion Picture Association of America, the National Association of Broadcasters, lobbyists for sports organizations and Time-Life have all backed legislation introduced last August that would ban ownership of home satellite earth receivers.
The bill was turned back last summer in part due to lobbying by the Society for Private and Commercial Earth Stations (SPACE), a Washington-based mini-trade association formed last May be a few hundred owners, manufacturers and installers of TVROs.
According to SPACE president Taylor Howard, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford, changing Congress' mind on the legislation "wasn't very difficult once they understood that the propsed remedy would probably kill the patient and serve no one's interest."
SPACE supports the contention that it's wrong for backyard users to watch their shows without paying. "We, in fact, support legislation that would impose penalties, fines and even jail for such unauthorized interceptions of their signals," Howard said.
A long-time consultant to many of the nation's space exploration programs, Howard is an authority on TVRO technology. In 1968 he became the first private citizen in the country to have his own receiving dish.
SPACE has offered to create an agency to collect and pay the copyright fees and annual subscription costs for shows members watch.
"We TVRO owners may appear as pirates or eccentrics . . . ," Howard said, "but the fact is that the nation is at the very threshold of a new application of television technology that will bring at last the long-awaited benefits TV has promised for so many years.
"I hope it doesn't sound elitist, but it's very important for my children to have access to the TV on the satellites: the news, movies, sports, theater, opera and cultural events that regularly play in New York, Boston, San Francisco and elsewhere.
"In our little town of San Andreas, Calif., with 2,000 souls, we don't even get TV to speak of and the town's so small you can't even buy a New Yorker here. But because of our TVRO my kids will . . . at least have had the same exposure to the forces shaping our society as the elite kids who live in our so-called cultural zones in New York and elsewhere."
The House Government Information and Individual Rights Subcommittee last August considered the bill banning home TVRO ownership, but decided to hold more hearings this year. Waiting in the wings for government decisions are major domestic and overseas corporations interested in entering the TVRO field.
For example, the Communications Satellite Corporation (Comsat), a high-technology, publicly held conern headquartered here. has asked the FCC for permission to inaugurate home satellite subscription TV service by 1984.
For about $300 a subscriber would receive a 2-foot TVRO that would bring in as many as six programing networks supplied by Comsat. A monthly fee of about $12 would go to Comsat, which intends to scramble its signals to prevent theft of the service from TVRO owners.
The Japanese are experimenting with a TVRO for home use. By using a stronger satellite signal, they have reduced the receiving dish to pie-plate size and simplified the elctronic components without reducing picture quality or sound.
From his home in Rockville, Jerry Peake is removed from the decision-making process in Washington.
"It's up to others to solve these problems with a dream -- a desire to see this technology succeed. What's needed now is for the people to see what this stuff can do and for them to decide if it's going to become a part of our lives here in America."