On dull Friday nights in Arcadia, Okla., Rick and Gloria Schjneringer snuggle up for a little R-rated excitement. They rotate the 10-foot satellite disc in their front yard until they can intercept television transmissions and watch the fleshy bedroom scenes reserved for the private use of cable television subscribers and the occupants of various motels.
"They're pretty funny and just a little bit sexy," said Rick Schneringer. "They're not X, but they're R-rated." Motioning to his wife with a tilt of his head, he added, "She doesn't mind. There are some naked men running around there, too."
The Federal Communications Commission and the Hollywood movie moguls consider the Schneringers modern-day pirates, pilfering the air waves. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader sees the Oklahoma couple as revolutionaries, striking a blow in the name of free speech against those who would control the flow of information.
If the Schneringers are indeed revolutionaries, theirs is one of the nation's more eccentric, yet rapidly growing revolts -- a movement of the most ardent television viewers who have wearied of having their programming selected for them by networks in New York or producers in Hollywood. The Schneringers, and an estimated 5,000 other satellite television buffs across the nation, have decided to "go to the source" for their television programming -- directly to the space satellites beaming images around the globe.
This weekend, the Schneringers hosted the fifth annual convention for the newest "hobby lobby" -- satellite communications buffs -- at the Shoreham Americana Hote. An estimated 2,000 people showed up, including satellite-receiver manufacturers showing off their waves, distributors looking for sales, and just plain folks, curious about the new and expensive way to expand the variety of their television viewing.
With a disc that has at least a 10-foot diameter, an amplifier, and a special receiver system, more and more people are setting up their own satellite receivers in their yards.
Communications satellites orbiting the earth send and receive millions of transmissions each day -- sporting events from Bloomington, Ind., bullfights from Mexico City, children's shows from Paris and virtually all the television network programs being beamed to local affiliates, to mention but a few.
The satellite television buffs at the Shoreham picked up the live presentation of the Pope's Good Friday observances on Italian television and a New York Mets baseball game.
With their antenna and a home satellite receiver, the "air pirates" can interpret the television signals and watch the shows on their living room television screens. The smallest, bargain basement set-up costs upwards of $4,000, so satellite television is still a relatively expensive hobby.
Still, as more and more persons begin experimenting with satellite television, the stage is being set for what some consumer activits like Nader see as a potential revolution in the communications industry.
Referring to the networks as the conspirational, nebulous "they," Nader accused the networks of controlling the outcome of the 1980 presidential election by giving prominent publicity to the major party candidates and ignoring other, lesser-known contenders. He said that 1980 was the last year that "they" would have such control, because the rapid growth of both cable and satellite television would give people more access to alternative information.
"If you can't reform them, if you can't civilize them, displace them," Nader said.
At the same time, a score of unanswered legal and ethical questions are being raised, pitting concerns about the privacy of satellite transmissions against the right to the free flow of information.
Those questions will have to be answered soon as more and more private firms and corporations begin launching their own satellites into space. There are now 20 satellite applications pending before the FCC and they could be used for everything from inventory surveys by national corporations to credit reference checks. Before these private transactions go onto satellite, the federal government will be forced to address the legality of the home receivers.
"Power really now rests in the hands of a few, in Hollywood, in the advertisers who dictate what kinds of programs they want, and in the media," said Samuel Lanahan, a Raleigh, N.C., designer trying to break into the home satellite distributor business.
Asked if he considers his ambition to distribute home satellite receivers an act of piracy, Lanahan said, "That's what I intend to do. I think we're being pirated" by the current information managers. "It's the dissemination of information. The first item of news you see in any guerrilla war is that they've taken over the radio stations."