Could satellite technology make TV programming truly global?

Networks use satellite communication technology to deliver news and programming.
Networks use satellite communication technology to deliver news and programming.
© Blakeley

When the world awoke on March 11, 2011, many turned on the TV news and saw that Japan had been devastated by an earthquake and tsunami of epic proportions. The pictures and news footage of the devastation were shocking.

As the days wore on, the images of people huddled in shelters, or fighting fires at several nuclear plants where radiation was leaking, were more than gripping. The disaster dominated the world's interest for days as the death toll climbed and as the nuclear crisis intensified. A Pew Research Center poll conducted a week after the tsunami showed that 57 percent of Americans followed the disaster closely -- more than any other story at the time [source: Pew Research Center].

It wasn't that long ago, disasters received attention only on the front page of newspapers or during the nightly news. But that was then. Today, thanks to satellite technology, disasters, wars and other stories of public interest are beamed into our houses -- not to mention our iPhones and iPads -- 24/7.

Although it might seem trite to say, television has indeed made the world a smaller place -- a truly global community. Networks have been able to use satellite communication technology to deliver news and programming as the human drama unfolds [source: Ainsworth]. Satellite TV allows all of us, no matter our address, to share experiences and react as one.

Additionally, satellite technology has helped the world collectively cheer the achievements of athletes during the Olympics, World Cup soccer matches and other sporting events. Just as importantly, satellite TV has allowed many of us to share our culture through TV shows, educational programming and music.

During the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Vietnam War protesters shouted "the world is watching" as police cracked down on the demonstrators. Satellite TV has made that phrase truer today than it ever has been. Read on to learn more.

The CNN Effect

CNN reporter Frank Buckley does a live shot from the flight deck of the U.S.S. Constellation shortly after President George H.W. Bush delivered an address to the world March 18, 2003 in the Persian Gulf.
CNN reporter Frank Buckley does a live shot from the flight deck of the U.S.S. Constellation shortly after President George H.W. Bush delivered an address to the world March 18, 2003 in the Persian Gulf.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The first satellite communication occurred on July 26, 1963, when a U.S. Navy ship located off Nigeria communicated with the naval station at Lakehurst, N.J. [source: Federal Communication Commission].

Soon after, telephone companies and television networks started using satellites to broadcast signals around the world. But it wasn't until 1980 that satellite technology really flexed its muscle. That's when CNN -- Cable News Network -- launched.

For the first time, people had a newscast that ran 24-hours a day, seven-days-a week. A global audience found themselves suddenly connected with millions of people sharing the same experiences [source: White].

As such, CNN changed how the world viewed itself. The first instance came in 1989 when pro-democracy students in Beijing took to the streets in Tiananmen Square [source: White]. CNN stayed with the coverage for days as public condemnation of the Chinese government grew. The lasting image was of a lone man standing in front of a communist tank, refusing to move.

The next event that galvanized the world's attention also occurred in 1989, when the Berlin Wall, long a symbol of communist intransigence and domination, came down. Then in 1991, the Persian Gulf War began. An international audience of millions watched as CNN news correspondents reported from Baghdad as bombs exploded. It was the first time people could view a war as it was being waged [source: White].

The last event was the terrorist attacks of 9/11. By this time, more satellite news networks, in the United States and abroad, were broadcasting. Hundreds of millions watched as the World Trade Center towers collapsed. Those images, seared into the world's collective conscience, united the globe as no one event could [source: White].

But satellite TV also had an unintended consequence -- the "CNN Effect," a catchall phrase describing how 24/7-live news coverage has affected the foreign policy decisions of nations [source: Strobel].

The CNN Effect was first felt in the early 1990s, when CNN broadcast graphic pictures of starving children in Somalia. The public outcry forced President George H.W. Bush to send troops to that beleaguered African nation to stem the disaster. The United States retreated from Somalia after Americans next saw the horrific footage of an American soldier's corpse being dragged through the streets [source: Strobel].

While those images changed the actions of a government, perhaps nowhere has the impact of global TV been more prominent than in the Middle East.

The Arab World: A Case Study of Global TV

Until a few years ago, most Arab states owned the ways and means to broadcast news. As such, the government controlled what people could see.

Then the global satellite TV telecommunication revolution exploded. It wasn't long before there was an Arab version of CNN -- Al-Jazeera. And just like CNN, Al-Jazeera soon had competition. Today, there are more than 750 satellite stations on the air in the Middle East [source: Dajani].

Al-Jazeera provides millions of Arabs with unfiltered news and political debate. The channel's viewership is in the tens of millions. The result has been that the region has seen remarkable growth in open discourse [source: Campagna]. Al-Jazeera also provides Arabs a vision of the news that is much different than what is seen in the West [source: Dajani].

An entire generation has been influenced by the programs and images on satellite TV. Experts believe that Al-Jazeera and its competitors are mainly responsible for educating ordinary Arabs in the ways of politics, and for raising awareness of international affairs, not to mention images of Western culture and politics. Arabs began demanding more from their governments [source: Soliman and Feuilherade].

When social unrest in North Africa and the Middle East began early in 2011, the revolutionaries combined the technology of the Internet and social networking with satellite TV. They used the media to organize, and post videos and pictures of the turbulence. TV satellites then transmitted those images around the world, spreading revolutionary fervor.

Although many credit "new" media for playing a huge role during the revolutions, the majority of people in the Middle East do not have access to the Internet. Without satellite TV, most Arabs would not have seen the demonstrations or the response of governments [source: Dajani].

Thanks to satellite TV, various minority groups are starting to make strides combating discrimination. The issues women face in the Arab world have found an international audience. In 2009, a Saudi TV station aired a rape scene in a drama series, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago. By making the problems more public, the producers hoped to shed light on violence against women [source: Jerusalem Post].

Satellite TV has, and probably will continue to change the face of nations, as long as all of us tune in.

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More Great Links


  • Ainsworth, Diane. "24-hour news through the looking glass." University of California at Berkeley. July 12, 2000. (April, 2011).
  • Campagna, Joel. "Pre-empting the Satellite TV Revolution." Committee to Protect Journalists. (April, 2011).
  • Dajani, Jamal. "The Arab Media Revolution." Frontline World. March 27, 2007. (April, 2011).
  • Federal Communication Commission. "The History of…Satellite TV Systems." (April, 2011).
  • Pew Researcher Center. "Most Are Attentive to News About Disaster in Japan." March 22, 2011. (April, 2011).
  • Soliman, Amani and Feuiherade, Peter. "Al-Jazeera's popularity and impact." Nov. 1, 2006. (April, 2011).
  • Strobel, Warren P. "The CNN Effect." American Journalism Review. May, 1996. (April, 2011).
  • The Jerusalem Post. "Saudi TV airs controversial rape scene." April, 21, 2009. (April, 2011).
  • White, Andrew. From the living room to the world: The globalization of television news." Globalization and the Media. (April, 2011).