Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and the Televisual
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Duke University Press Books
Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and the Televisual

Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and the Televisual

by Lisa Parks, Lynn Spigel, Parks


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In 1957 Sputnik, the world’s first man-made satellite, dazzled people as it zipped around the planet. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, more than eight thousand satellites orbited the Earth, and satellite practices such as live transmission, direct broadcasting, remote sensing, and astronomical observation had altered how we imagined ourselves in relation to others and our planet within the cosmos. In Cultures in Orbit, Lisa Parks analyzes these satellite practices and shows how they have affected meanings of “the global” and “the televisual.” Parks suggests that the convergence of broadcast, satellite, and computer technologies necessitates an expanded definition of “television,” one that encompasses practices of military monitoring and scientific observation as well as commercial entertainment and public broadcasting.

Roaming across the disciplines of media studies, geography, and science and technology studies, Parks examines uses of satellites by broadcasters, military officials, archaeologists, and astronomers. She looks at Our World, a live intercontinental television program that reached five hundred million viewers in 1967, and Imparja tv, an Aboriginal satellite tv network in Australia. Turning to satellites’ remote-sensing capabilities, she explores the U.S. military’s production of satellite images of the war in Bosnia as well as archaeologists’ use of satellites in the excavation of Cleopatra’s palace in Alexandria, Egypt. Parks’s reflections on how Western fantasies of control are implicated in the Hubble telescope’s views of outer space point to a broader concern: that while satellite uses promise a “global village,” they also cut and divide the planet in ways that extend the hegemony of the post-industrial West. In focusing on such contradictions, Parks highlights how satellites cross paths with cultural politics and social struggles.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822334613
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/20/2005
Series: Console-ing Passions Series
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 62.50(w) x 92.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Lisa Parks is Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is a coeditor of Planet TV: A Global Television Reader.

Read an Excerpt

Cultures in Orbit

Satellites and the Televisual

By Lisa Parks

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8674-2


Satellite Spectacular


Designed by BBC artist German Fecetti, the logo for Our World—one of the first live international satellite television programs — incorporates a Da Vinci–inspired figure mapped over the earth's grids of longitude and latitude, its arms encircling the globe. In an evocative statement that collapsed global travel and world history within Da Vinci's iconic image of Western rational intellect, one of the show's producers declared, "It took three years of his life for Magellan to go around the world. The Graf Zeppelin took three weeks. A Russian cosmonaut made it in 90 minutes.... We are in a sense, electronic Magellans." The "electronic Magellan" not only became a powerful metaphor for the way that satellite technology promised to ricochet Our World's viewers around the globe from the comfort of the living room, but it also revealed how broadcasters in the industrial West imagined new technologies of space communication.

From 1962 and 1967 broadcasters in Western industrial nations participated in a series of live international television exchanges using the Telstar, Early Bird, and Syncom satellites. These live-via-satellite television programs, which I refer to as "satellite spectaculars," began just after the launch of the first United States commercial satellite, Telstar, in July 1962, and continued throughout the decade. While Telstar forged satellite connections across the Atlantic in a series of exchanges between the United States and Western Europe, Syncom established a satellite link across the Pacific, integrating East Asia within an expanding global satellite system. In 1964 Japan relayed the opening ceremony of the Olympics live to viewers across the Pacific. In 1965 a program called The Town Meeting of the World was shown live via Early Bird and beamed across the Atlantic. But the most ambitious satellite spectacular of the decade was the 1967 broadcast of Our World.

What distinguished Our World from earlier satellite broadcasts was its deliberately global reach: It was intended to link nations across the Pacific and the Atlantic, the communist East and the democratic West, the industrialized North and the developing South. In addition, Our World's producers fully exploited what they understood to be the unique properties of live satellite television: its capacity to craft a "global now." Described by critics as a "fabulous planetary swing," a "spectacular display of electronic wizardry," "a vast global happening," and "an old fashioned geography class gone electric," Our World was relayed live via satellite on June 25, 1967, to an estimated five hundred million viewers in twenty-four countries. The two-hour show, coordinated by the European Broadcasting Union and edited from master control at the BBC in London, required more than two years of planning, ten thousand technicians, four satellites, thousands of miles of land lines, and five million dollars to produce. The show predicated itself on the cultural legitimacy of public broadcasting, the benevolent paternalism of Western liberals, and the space-age utopianism of satellite communication. Our World's structure established precedents for subsequent global television coverage, alternating between live views of the television studio, maps, and remote locations, interpellating the viewer not only as "globally present" but as "culturally worldly" and "geographically mobile." Seen by millions of viewers throughout North America and Europe, this early experiment helped to determine one of the cultural forms of satellite television.

This chapter examines the content of and discourses surrounding this early satellite spectacular in an effort to understand the particular forms of televisuality it generated. John Caldwell uses the term televisuality to refer to the aesthetic excesses that characterized U.S. television during the 1980s and 1990s, a time he describes as "an important historical moment in television's presentational manner, one defined by excessive stylization and visual exhibitionism." Such stylistic excesses and visual exhibitionism can be recognized in earlier moments of television's history as well, particularly in moments of its convergence with other technologies. In the 1960s Our World and other satellite spectaculars constantly called attention to their own immediacy and liveness, aggressively using mise-en-scène, graphics, narration, and publicity to construct a form of television that was imagined as different from earlier forms.

Generated at the peak of the cold war, in the midst of the space race, and during the decolonization of the developing world, satellite television first took shape in a series of broadcasts emanating from the United States, Western Europe, and Japan. These broadcasts exploited "liveness" as their defining feature and articulated it with Western discourses of modernization, global unity, and planetary control. By analyzing discourses surrounding this experimental broadcast I hope to complicate the technologically determinist assumption that satellites simply extended television's global reach, further elaborated its capacity for "liveness," and created a harmonious global village. Not simply an aesthetic, satellite televisuality was also the result of complex and dispersed industrial practices, namely a decentralized mode of international television coproduction that involved instantaneous performance, translation, switching, and transmission. Our World's status as a "live" broadcast was somewhat ironic, however, since it required two years of international collaboration, preproduction planning, and technical preparations.

One of the most important structures established in this early satellite broadcast is an imaginary construct or Western fantasy I will call "global presence." As Jeffrey Sconce explains, the concept of electronic presence dates back at least to the nineteenth century and has been variously described over the years as "'simultaneity,' 'instantaneity', 'immediacy,' 'now-ness,' 'present-ness,' 'intimacy,' 'the time of the now.'" As Sconce suggests, "this animating, at times occult, sense of 'liveness' is clearly an important component in understanding electronic media's technological, textual, and critical histories." In this chapter I develop the term global presence to historicize the meanings of "liveness" or "presence" in the context of satellite and television convergence in the 1960s. During this time the meanings of "liveness" and "presence" were indistinguishable from Western discourses of modernization, which classified societies as traditional or modern, called for urbanization and literacy in the developing world, and envisioned mass media as agents of social control and economic liberalization. Emanating from Western nation-states, the satellite spectaculars were imagined as the cutting edge of the modern, the most current or present form of cultural expression. The end point of modernization, then, was constructed as the capacity to be technologically and culturally integrated within a new system of global satellite exchange. Developing nations could only claim themselves as "modern" if they were in range of American, Western European, or Japanese satellite television signals, earth stations, or networks.

Setting the Global Stage

Telstar and Early Bird linked the United States and Europe, and Syncom 2 connected the United States and Japan, but as industry executives foresaw the "swelling global audience" of "space-age TV," they sought to develop programming that was more fully global in reach. Given their technical successes in the early 1960s, broadcasters were ready to take on a bigger challenge. As ABC'S James C. Hagerty predicted, live satellite transmission from abroad would be limited almost entirely to "great human events—a coronation, a summit meeting, a sports event." He continued: "As for entertainment, the consensus is that after the novelty of Bob Hope live from London's Palladium wears off, such shows will be no factor. Furthermore, the time zone differences eliminate mass audiences most of the time." Broadcasters schemed to develop cultural events appropriate for live international satellite transmission after a series of experiments via Echo, Telstar, Syncom, and Early Bird that took place from 1960 to 1965.

Our World was conceived in 1965 by a handful of producers from the BBC'S TV Features and Science Departments. Aubrey Singer, the BBC producer of the transatlantic satellite relay The Town Meeting of the World (1965), spearheaded what was initially called the "Round the World" project, gaining the support of the European Broadcasting Union and traveling to different countries to assess the availability of technical facilities and broadcasters' interest. The U.S. commercial networks shied away from the project and left it in the hands of the National Educational Television (NET) network (which became PBSin 1967). In September 1966 representatives from eighteen nations met in Geneva to discuss the program's development. At this meeting participants agreed that the program would have no political content, that no item would be included without full knowledge of all participants, and that the entire program would be live. This meant that Our World would differ from earlier satellite relays, which tended to focus on the activities of political and corporate officials and feature postcardlike vistas of timeless historical monuments in the United States and Western Europe.

Our World emerged amid important international discussions about the regulation of satellite communication. By 1967 a live international television program that not only linked the East and West but also North and South was both feasible and desirable, since many of the participants were also UN members who encouraged uses of space technologies that would "benefit all of mankind." In 1963 the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the first of several outer space treaties, which provided that "outer space and celestial bodies are free for exploration and use by all states in conformity with international law and are not subject to national appropriation." To encourage further international cooperation in this area, UNESCO convened a special meeting of experts from around the world in December 1965. Scholars, engineers, political officials, and broadcasters were asked to advise on a long-term program "to promote the use of space communication as a medium for the free flow of information, the spread of education and wider international cultural exchanges."

While the producers of Our World did not participate directly in the meeting, the discussions shed light on the various ways world leaders imagined life in the age of the satellite. Taking satellite access almost for granted, Western leaders were primarily concerned with shifts in lifestyle. Stanford Professor Wilbur Schramm predicted that "the pace of living in the satellite age may require man to learn how to get along with less sleep, or at least to organize his working and sleeping hours so that they coincide better with time schedules in other parts of the world that most concern him." The English broadcaster Lord Francis Williams suggested that with satellites "the opportunity ... will exist for ordinary men and women to participate directly as observers in every event of public importance in the world as it actually takes place and with the same immediacy as if they were physically present." And Arthur C. Clarke described satellites as the "nodal points" in the "nervous system of mankind," predicting an age in which they would "enable the consciousness of our grandchildren to flicker like lightning back and forth across the face of this planet. They will be able to go anywhere and meet anyone, at any time, without stirring from their homes ... all the museums." Each of these comments conjures up a world with the Western individual smack at its center, keeping track of "areas that most concern him," observing firsthand "events of public importance in the world," or having the capacity to "go anywhere ... without stirring from ... home." Such comments reinforced a fantasy of global presence in which the world is figured as a realm of access and familiarity.

Leaders from the Soviet Union who attended the meeting had a different perspective. University of Moscow Professor N. I. Tchistiakov emphasized the "equal right of participation of all parts of the world and all countries ... to balance the powerful flow of broadcasting and information from developed countries by an equal flow from developing countries." Leaders from third world nations such as Pakistan, Nigeria, and India insisted on subsidized access to satellites for underdeveloped nations and proposed that satellites be used in education initiatives throughout the developing world. Nigeria's I. O. A. Lasode proposed that a ground station be built in Nigeria so the African continent could become part of the global satellite system. The Pakistani engineer M. M. Khatib proposed that engineers and scientists from Asia, Africa, and Latin America should be included in the stages of satellite experimentation, trial, and observation so they could acquire technical knowledge and a sense of belonging to the world's satellite development group. This, he believed, would make the global satellite system more genuinely a "world community project."

In 1967, the same year Our World was produced, UN members signed the Outer Space Treaty, which provided for free use of outer space in accordance with international law, prohibited national appropriation of outer space, and made states the sole responsible entities for observing and enforcing its provisions. Even before this treaty was signed, however, the United States and the Soviet Union had been appropriating outer space for national security, deploying top-secret satellite espionage systems into orbit. In addition, the United States had been actively working to commercialize the global satellite system since the early 1960s, when it had formed two public corporations: COMSAT (the Communications Satellite Corporation) in 1962 and INTELSAT (the International Telecommunications Satellite Consortium) in 1964. Although both were public corporations, mandated to operate in the public interest (COMSAT) and to promote "world peace and understanding" (INTELSAT), they clearly were designed to benefit the U.S. economy first and foremost.

Gestures toward international cooperation in the development, regulation, and use of satellites were often influenced by cold war politics. On June 21, 1967, four days before Our World was scheduled for relay, the Soviet Union announced its withdrawal from the broadcast based on its belief that the United States, England, and West Germany were supporting Israeli aggression in the Middle East, compromising the program's humanitarian aim. Following the Soviets' lead, the other Eastern bloc participants—Poland, Hungary, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia—withdrew. Producers quickly added Denmark to Our World's roster and ended up with fourteen rather than eighteen contributing countries and beamed the show's signal to viewers in twenty-four rather than thirty nations. The communist bloc's withdrawal from Our World demonstrated the use of liveness for an overt political purpose—that is, to call attention to what the Soviets perceived as inappropriate Western intervention in the Six-Day War in the Middle East. As one Soviet leader declared, "The radio and television organizations of USA, England and the Federal Republic of Germany ... are engaged in a slanderous campaign against the Arab countries and the peaceful policy of ... socialist states." The conspicuous absence of the communist nations on the day of the broadcast (especially since for months promoters had highlighted their participation) complicated the "globalist" claims of the show. But despite the last-minute cancellation of the USSR and its allies, Our World aired as scheduled.

Since many of Our World's organizers either emerged from or supported the BBC tradition of public service broadcasting and were aware of UN discussions about the use of satellites in the interests of all humankind, they agreed that the program should have a humanitarian theme. At a meeting in January 1967 representatives of the participating nations agreed to develop the show's theme around the "population explosion" because it was deemed "equally valid and important to people all over the world." During the 1960s, population growth was declared a global crisis by Western sociologists, economists, biologists, anthropologists, and geographers. Books such as The Population Explosion (1962), The Population Dilemma (1963, 1969), The Silent Explosion (1965), and The Population Bomb (1968), to name a few, likened population growth in the developing world to a ticking time bomb that threatened to wreak havoc worldwide. As Paul Ehrlich explained in his widely read The Population Bomb, "each year food production in undeveloped countries falls a bit further behind the burgeoning population growth." If population control measures were not instituted immediately, he argued, people in developing countries faced mass starvation. The book's cover depicted a bomb with a short fuse above a panicky catch line: "While you are reading these words four people have died from starvation. Most of them children."

Our World's producers perceived the live satellite broadcast as a unique way to publicize and visualize what they believed was an urgent global crisis. Though they chose population control as a way to build bridges, the theme divided the world once again. Whereas the Soviet withdrawal highlighted political tensions between the communist East and the democratic West, the population explosion reinforced divisions between the industrialized North and the underdeveloped South. As Ehrlich insisted, the world's countries "can be divided rather neatly into two groups: those with rapid growth rates and those with relatively slow growth rates." And as the Our World script bluntly put it, the "growth rate is not equal all over the world; because in a sense our world is two worlds. If you are in reach of this programme, you almost certainly belong to the industrialised world." If developing countries did not even have the science and technology for birth control or efficient forms of agriculture, so the logic went, how could they ever participate in such a live satellite television event?


Excerpted from Cultures in Orbit by Lisa Parks. Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1. Satellite Spectacular: Our World and the Fantasy of Global Presence 21

2. Satellite Footprints: Imparja TV and Postcolonial Flaws in Australia 47

3. Satellite Witnessing: Views and Coverage of the War in Bosnia 77

4. Satellite Archaeology: Remote Sensing Cleopatra in Egypt 109

5. Satellite Panoramas: Astronomical Observation and Remote Control 139

Conclusion 167

Notes 185

Bibliography 213

Index 233

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