THERE IS A SPECTRUM haunting Europe: the frequency spectrum of international television.
New media technologies -- direct broadcast satellites, for one -- make it technically ossible for us to beam TV programs into a country whether it wants us to or not. By the end of the decade, Europe -- and every other cntinent with TV sets -- will be a target in the video generation of propaganda wars.
That is why the U.S. International Communications Agency's recent star-laden propaganda spectacular "Let Poland Be Poland" was such a silly idea: Who cares if America, Western Europe or Africa saw it? The people who might have some influence about letting Poland be Poland were in Hungary or the Ukaine. The program preached to the converted.
If the Reagan administration were really serious about getting its message across, it would take off the kid gloves and do what one would think the president understands: putting a pitch on a screen, and to the right audience. After all, Ronald Reagan spent a good chunk of World War II making propaganda/training films.
But instead these wishy-washy "hardliners" stick with old technologies such as ground-based radio. It's time the administration literally put its money where its mouth is and started beaming its political commercials to the right market.
How might Eastern Bloc perceptions of America change if, say, the CBS Evening News were broadcast there nightly?
What would the average Russian feel about the war in Afghanistan if it were beamed into his living room the way the war in Vietnam was beamed into ours?
How would Soviet public opinion be affected by a nightly feed of a Firing Line-style program hosted by Alexander Solzhenitsyn?
What opportunities do the new media offer in the way of improving our relationships with the Third World?
Technology makes these questions real. Consequently, that means communications can play a sharper role as a foreign policy tool.
For most of the '70s, there's been a continuous whine from the foreign policymakers that economic sanctions don't work and war is too extreme so there's nothing that can be done if other countries misbehave. That is the whine of the unimaginative. If the Pentagon can invest huge sums in new technologies to better wage a hot war, shouldn't the State Department be asked to use creatively new technologies to build an arsenal for the war of ideas?
Television, as the most compelling and hypnotic medium ever devised, offers policymakers an intriguing way to circumvent the status quo and appeal directly to public opinion. According to Soviet sources, the U.S.S.R. is 70 to 75 percent wired for television today, and will be up to 90 percent by the end of the decade. Powerful, informative programming could create internal political pressures in such a target country. Television alone might never win over hearts and minds, but if well done, it's bound to win attention.
The Eastern Bloc knows this.
"Eastern Europe, led by the Soviet Union, would do everything in its power to prevent direct broadcast television," asserts William E. Schaufele Jr., president of the Foreign Policy Association and ambassador to Poland from 1978 to 1980. "They have a real fear of direct broadcast television. . . . It would have a significant impact -- obviously, not only is picture more effective than sound, but the existing programming in Eastern Europe is very drab. I think people would tune in to TV the way they tune in to Radio Free Europe."
Many Kreminologists agree with Schaufele. They point to the extreme lengths the Eastern Bloc audience goes to today to receive Western short-wave broadcasts. They say this demonstrates the enormous potential audience for direct broadcast television.
They add that Soviet attempts to jam Western land- based radio today is very expensive and only spottily effective. Who knows what it would take to try to stop a television signal from 23,000 miles in space that covers half a continent?
(For that matter, direct broadcast satellites aren't the only way to go. NASA and several major aerospace companies are exploring "pseudo-satellites" that could transmit from 20 miles up and other exotic technologies.)
It is ironic, then, that for all the hoopla surrounding the ICA's "Let Poland Be Poland," "Project Truth" and Radio Mart,i for Cuba, this administration doesn't appreciate the role the new media could play internationally.
America can't afford to cavalierly discard foreign policy options for the future. If this country is going to take advantage of new media opportunities, it will have to move quickly and assertively in both the technological and political arenas.
Like petroleum, the telecommunications frequency spectrum is a limited resource: It has to be managed. And, just as there is a finite frequency spectrum, there are a limited number of "slots" in space in which to park a direct broadcast satellite so it will work right. Every few years, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) convenes a World Administrative Radio Conference (WARC) to allocate slots along with spectrum frequencies. At the 1979 WARC, satellite slots were assigned in a way that makes it very difficult for the United States to use direct broadcast satellites internationally.
However, the problem is probably moot -- especially in Europe. "It will be a few years down the line before we have overt 'satellite wars,' " says Jonathan Miller, editor of the influential trade publication Satellite Week. "(But) in Europe, signals will be slurping all over the place. My guess is that Russians will be watching West European television and there's nothing their government can do about it."
And there's nothing wrong with that -- it's not a violation of international rules. "In the absence of any legal convention," says a top U.N. staffer, "there's really nothing a country can do."
Transborder frequency flow is inevitable -- and it's to our advantage to go with it. We should try to negotiate access on existing direct broadcast satellites if we can't get a slot of our own and, of course, we should be prepared to finance co-ventures.
A real problem, though, is that while a direct broadcast satellite's beam can be picked up by tiny, four-foot-wide attic-mounted antennas that can be made out of chicken wire, the technology is not yet so easy, cheap and unobtrusive that a member of a "closed" society could tune into a TV broadcast without some risk. Still, remember that millions of Eastern bloc citizens tune in to Voice of America and Radio Free Europe broadcasts on short- wave radios despite the intensive jamming efforts and the threat of imprisonment. As the new technologies are refined, it's likely that receiving the signals should become easier and safer.
But employing the new media doesn't come cheap. A direct broadcast satellite (DBS) system for Eastern Europe could require a $500 million satellite launch every five or six years. The questions then become ones of cost- benefit: What is it really worth to us to get our message across? What do we really want to say and show? Is what we have to broadcast so important that people should take a risk to see it?
Television is a powerful medium and people will be suckers for only so long. These kinds of questions -- the very opportunity this medium offers that radio can't -- force us to define carefully just what our foreign policy aims are.
Now if we really believe in the principle of using new technology to promote the free flow of information in all forms, then we have to accept the idea that the current shouldn't only run in one direction. The Third World has a tremendous stake in learning how to use telecommunications -- both domestic and international -- effectively. The United States, better than any other country, is in a position to teach Third World countries how to jam a variety of communications services into a limited frequency spectrum.
"I'm enthusiastic about sharing resources," says Yash Pal of India, an expert on the role of satellites and the Third World. "We would like people to teach how to produce TV programs in my country."
In 1975, Pal ran the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) program in India. Using a single satellite link and 2,500 receiving dishes distributed throughout the country, the Indian government distributed educational and agricultural programming to remote villages. The experiment was a success -- but now it's over. "There has to be a building of infrastructures (from short-wave radio operators to television transmitters) in underdeveloped countries," says Pal. The United States stands to win both allies at the ITU and broadcast access to the Third World if it helps build these infrastructures. This sort of technology transfer is an important step to improving Third World relations.
The new media really do cut both ways. Europe and the Third World won't be the only battlegrounds. In fact, the chances are that the communist bloc will be able to beam their programming to America well before we have a crack at them because we are so much more advanced in our satellite reception capability. In 1983, a regional WARC convenes to allocate satellite orbit locations for this hemisphere. It is a virtual certainty that Cuba will get a slot. If the Russians give Cuba a satellite and provide the appropriate programming, then the United States will be the target for the first barrage in the new media age of propaganda.
"The Russians feel they have a good story to tell and they're telling it," says Satellite Week's Jonathan Miller. "They can play these games with as much acumen and skill as we have."
(Programming via Cuba into the United States would only be fair turnabout in at least one way. Fidel Castro, who receives Cable News Network via a powerful antenna that, in effect, pirates its satellite signal, likes the product so much that he has agreed to appear in a commercial for CNN.)
At Congress' request, the State Departmen has a few working groups looking at DBS but their mission, says a spokesman, is "99 percent radio and 1 percent television."
The real questions, though, are going unanswered. Do the new media offer us real foreign policy opportunities? If America really has a point of view to put across, shouldn't it look to all media possible to distribute them?
It's a certainty that the other side will.