From Sputnik to Sports Channels - The History of Satellite TV

From Sputnik to Sports Channels - The History of Satellite TV
By Philip Nicosia

The first satellite TV broadcast set out to capture something more ambitious than the latest sports channels: try outer space.

In 1957, the Sputnik, the Soviet Union’s first artificial satellite, sent back the first images of outer space, beating the United States by one year (they later sent out a small scientific satellite called Explorer I).

Though the broadcasts were pretty much long hours of very large and funky looking rocks (adding a whole new dimension to the media industry phrase, “dead air”) the competition between the Soviet Union and the United States pretty much ushered in the beginning of satellite communication. By 1973, Canada’s satellite Anik I became the world’s first satellite television network—which showed far more entertaining images of “stars” instead of, well, stars.

Thus, the coach potatoes of this world began their wonderful love affair with TV satellite networks. HBO began broadcasting their signals to cable companies, who “sold” you access to the channel. The problem of this, of course, was that for every channel you asked for, you had to pay a little extra. Not good news for the rabid channel surfers who want to have their 100+ channels available. And it got pretty frustrating for those who heard about a new movie or sports event being shown, only to discover that the signal was blocked and available only to “premium subscribers”.

Later on, companies started selling actual satellite dishes. Essentially, you paid for the equipment but got free satellite TV. That wasn’t good news for the cable company, who were losing subscription sales to people. They tried scrambling the information. That meant people had to buy the descrambler to view the signals. But, it still worked out for the coach potato: hundreds of channels available, and no risk of being stuck at home with nothing but reruns. (Unless you’re into reruns, in which case there are entire channels dedicated to them).

By the 1990’s companies began launching their own satellites and getting into the satellite TV market. For example you had Primestar, then Direct TV and finally Dish Network. It was a more competitive market. Also good for the consumer: competition meant the race to provide better shows, and more channels.

Today, the technology of Satellite TV has gotten very, very cool: clear signals, more reliable transmission, and several providers that guarantee that there’s always something good to watch. With TiVo you can even record shows and watch them when you’re ready—or, if that doesn’t work for you, you can plug in the VCR or the rewritable DVD, and tape it for another time.

So maybe we haven’t conquered outer space yet. The Space Race has slowed down, and dreams of colonizing Mars have become largely limited to cheesy movies and science fiction shows. But the technology has now made it possible to rule the world with your remote control. Now sit back. Open those potato chips. Put your feet up, and enjoy. It may be several decades before we understand the secrets of the universe, but you can always watch a movie while you wait. is an online resource centre covering many topics including electronics and satellite TV.

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