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Memory Lane: When the sky was the limit

Tue, 03/05/2013 - 9:15pm
Stewart Schley Media & technology writer

On Dec. 13, 1975, RCA gave the cable industry a pre-Christmas gift to remember when the first of RCA’s Satcom series of geostationary satellites was launched by NASA from a Delta 3000 rocket.

Satcom 1 was to the cable programming industry what a Beverly Hills ZIP code is to an entertainment lawyer: the most desirable address anywhere. The satellite had 24 transponders, each of which could accommodate one 6 MHz television channel in Satcom 1’s pre-digital, pre-video compression era. With ground-based receiving dishes expensive and cable companies struggling to raise capital to build out their physical networks, being stingy was essential. Cable companies wanted as much programming as they could get from a single satellite so they could limit the number of expensive earth stations they’d have to buy.

RCA, tutored by a cable industry technology executive, Sidney Topol, recognized the possibilities. Although the first domestic communications satellite, Western Union’s Westar 1, had made history three months before by transmitting the famous “Thrilla in Manilla” boxing match to cable systems in Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, RCA had a more advanced business strategy.

It was all about location, tenants and economics. RCA realized that if it could amass enough popular or promising channels over one satellite, it could rise up as the premier inspace destination for cable program delivery. RCA leapfrogged its rival by building double the number of transponders into Satcom 1, allowing it to undercut Westar’s rates per transponder while producing more revenue in total from the satellite. On the ground, Topol’s company, Scientific-Atlanta, would complete the loop by building and selling earth stations to capture the satellite signals.

“It was just an avalanche,” said Topol in an interview conducted by The Cable Center.

“We just couldn't keep up with the production. We were just swamped with earth stations and receivers.” Even so, Topol recounted how Scientific-Atlanta had to effectively subsidize the marketplace by spending $160,000 to build earth stations that it sold to cable companies for $100,000.

Among the early Satcom 1 tenants was a 3-year-old pay-TV service that had previously been distributed over terrestrial microwave relay towers in the Northeastern U.S. Home Box Office had been frustrated by the limited range and poor performance, especially in winter weather, of the microwave network and was convinced that nationwide satellite distribution offered inroads to a bigger market. HBO first rented space on the Westar satellite, but by February of 1976, it moved to Satcom 1.

It wasn’t alone. Within a year of its launch, Satcom 1 boasted a programming lineup that read like an early “who’s who” of the budding cable programming world. Ted Turner’s Superstation WTBS, ESPN and CBN – later rebranded as ABC Family – were among the marquee names. ABC, CBS and NBC also rented transponder space to beam video content to over-the-air affiliates, adopting an alternative to the AT&T microwave and coaxial networks they’d used previously.

“It was a transformational event for the whole industry,” recalled the late Bill Bresnan, a cable industry executive who had signed one of the first big purchase orders for the Scientific- Atlanta earth stations as the president of TelePrompTer Corp. “Prior to the satellite, the industry was made up of a bunch of isolated systems all around the country, and just overnight, as these satellite receivers started popping up, we had a national network. We had an interconnected, national network, which totally changed the industry,” Bresnan said in a Cable Center interview.

By the time Satcom 1 was retired – fittingly, during the National Cable Television Association’s 1984 industry convention in Las Vegas – most of the original Satcom 1 programmers had moved their networks to successor satellites.

Those satellites and their progeny have endured for decades as an essential conduit for cable programming.

That’s beginning to change as terrestrial fiber networks and attractive economics of IP video delivery make it more economical in many instances to transport content on the ground. The fact that there are more ways to move video efficiently today provides a counterpoint to the core business value RCA brought to the marketplace in the 1970s.

It wasn’t just the technological capability of satellites that made Satcom 1 a runaway leader in the cable business.

It was scarcity. With cable’s business model unproven and its capital budgets strained, the industry needed to rally around a common platform. RCA was at the right place at an opportune time with an innovative approach to aggregating content. Funny how even as technology changes, that formula still seems to win.

stewart@stewartschley.com

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