Satellite TV and the waning of the Global Village
The following is a slightly edited version of a contribution I made to the alt.satellite.tv.europe newsgroup, on the issue of satellite TV and the promised disappearance of national boundaries in Europe.
A couple of weeks ago, there was an exchange on the perennial topic of scrambling and European access to UK satellite channels. As usual, it took the form of a whining "why can't I have one too", to which I must confess to have contributed.
However, the topic is too interesting to let it go at that. In particular, if we see it in light of the expectations and fears that satellite TV awoke only four or five years ago, it is somewhat ironic to see the course of the development. It is, to put it this way, the revenge of the particular over the global.
At that time, satellite TV was seen as perhaphs the most forceful factor in the "globalization" of human culture, both in postive terms and in negative. Adherents cheered the breaking down of cultural and political restraints. Now, nobody could tell us what we should and should not watch, we could follow political events where they occured, see the same culture and entertainment as our neighbours abroad, and have a width of choice impossible in each individual country. The TV set would open up to the "global village", or at least the European one, we could see Russian or Greek TV as well as the Russians and Greeks themselves.
This was also the view by those who feared for the submersion of the various national cultures into one hybrid "entertainment culture", by force dominated by America. In particular in smaller countries like mine, this was official policy, one saw Norwegian language and culture as being under attack from the skies. However, one "could not close the borders of the airwaves", so this "attack" from the uncontrollable influx of entertainment and low culture from the Clarke belt must be met by supporting a "Norwegian alternative" (an argument used with great vigour and some success by Norwegian film makers and artists). This was the defence of the "particular" against the "global".
Where are we now?Today, this seems all very distant. Instead of the openness of the global village, we see the world of satellite TV closing in on itself along the old national boundarires, scrambled and inaccessible. Granted, this process is not complete. The Germans make a big exception, and even beside them, there are about 45 unscrambled channels in the Ku-band alone over Europe. However, most of these are either in less used languages (Scandinavian, Turkish, Arabic, Greek), or technically less accessible (the French in the Telecom band). And even for these, the tendency is towards increased scrambling, not greater openness.
Scrambling has, as we know it, two reasons. One is to get income to the provider through subscription, the other is to limit access of the channel to a particular country or countries. Thus, the satellite world, instead of being united, is in the process of being split along the same national lines as the old surface TV was: UK satellite channels can only be seen in the UK, Scandinavian ones only in the North, the French in France. Thus, it seems that both the hopes and the fears of the "globalizing" effect of the satellites were in vain. It is the victory of "particularism" over "globalism".
Of course, it is not quite the same as before. For one thing, satellite channels are not run by the state, as the old monopolies used to be. But for most of us, that is of lesser importance than the programming. Also, at least in the smaller countries the "packages" we are invited to subscribe to contain some international channels, like Discovery and Children. But there is a tendency to "nationalize" even those, with dubbing or fixed subtitles.
And it may be getting worse. The latest European proposal for digital TV say that scrambling and subscription in the suggested new Simulcrypt method should be restricted to one agency per country, so that all subscription channels in that country should be available on a single card. In practice, the existing dominant services, BSkyB in the UK and Canal+ in France would be given this agency. If so, their monopoly will become official, and any satellite channel that wants to offer subscription to UK or France, etc., will have to negotiate with them. Hopefully, the EU is not going to accept this de facto monopolization, but the services in question are pushing hard for it to become official policy.
So, in effect, the distinction between the openness of satellites and the closed world of cable is shrinking. More and more, the difference becomes one of receiving six Turkish channels of TV shopping and game shows or not.
What happened?There are probably many reasons for this defeat of globalism. But some that merit mention are;
Thus, for non-exclusivity, there is no logical reason why distribution rights is not paid for on the basis of real audience, which in the case of subscription channels is easily established. It would be in the channels' interest, as they would be paying on the basis of their actual subscriber base, rather than a theoretical national market, and they could thus easily expand their target to the greater European market. Assuming that the channels actually have a net income on each new subscriber, this could only be to their interest (the British channels would also have less to fear from the pirate card market, which would be severly undercut if legal cards were available throughout the continent). The consumer gains, because he gets a wider choice, as well as real competition between different satellite companies, rather than today's national monopolies: With such a regime, it would be easier - not easy, but easier - to set up "independent" channels on a pan-European or local scale.
Who would lose? Hollywood, perhaps. I do not know the figures used for the sale of rights, but it is reasonable to assume that Hollywood sticks to the current outmoded model because either (a) Europe is so small that its particular case is not worth changing established practices, or (b) it is feared that they could not on a "real audience" model charge the prices, and thus generate the income, they do today, even if they were selling rights to a larger number of European channels. It is probably not hubris to consider (b) to be most likely. [A wish to isolate the very profitable British market - native English speakers from the rest of Europe will probably also play a part here.]
A policy for satellite users in EuropeThus, we can imagine of a policy to support. We, the consumers, should favour a globalization of the satellite market. We will continue to see free, unscrambled TV from national providers like the minority languages, "export channels" like TV5 and news channels, but can probably not expect unscrambled high-quality channels showing films and competitive entertainment. Rather than fighting that, we should push for goals such as these:
Knut S. Vikør.
Knut S. Vikør, 7.5.95