Satellites, Communication

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In the most basic terms, the communications satellite industry is made up of those who use satellite transponder time and those who provide or broker satellite time. Satellites are used to transmit all types of video and other data. Uses include news feeds and other occasional services, special events transmission for broadcast and cable outlets, transmission of syndicated programming, video conferencing for business and other applications, distance learning, satellite media tours, distribution of video news releases (VNRs) and commercials, direct-to-home delivery of television programs and events, as well as telephone, data, and Internet applications. Local television and radio stations, or even broadcast networks or major corporations, would find it very costly to launch and maintain their own satellites. Therefore, most outlets lease time on existing satellites if they are going to send satellite news and programming feeds or other types of data.

Major Satellite Service Providers

Some in the industry credit General Electric (GE) with playing a major role in the beginnings of satellite newsgathering (SNG). GE Americom, one of the largest satellite brokerage firms in the United States, operates a fleet of twelve satellites that serves the United States and Canada. Additional satellites serve Latin America, Europe, and Asia. The company operates four tracking, telemetry, and control Earth stations in the continental United States, along with other global facilities.

GE Americom introduced "hybrid" satellites that contain both C-band and Ku-band transponders. GE's subsidiary, NBC, was the first commercial network to have programming delivered by satellite, via Americom satellites and facilities. Americom was also the first provider to make it possible for newsgathering operations to maintain voice communications with home bases while transmitting video.

Loral Skynet is another major supplier of satellite space and services. Loral Skynet came into being when the satellite manufacturer Loral Space & Communications purchased Skynet from AT&T in 1997. Loral Skynet operates eight satellites in the Telstar fleet and has acquired or partnered with ventures in France, Mexico, and Brazil to expand its reach to most of the world's population.

Vyvx is another of the primary suppliers of satellite time to users in the United States. In addition to its fiber-optic services, Vyvx operates both analog and digital satellites that use both C-band and Ku-band frequencies. Like most providers, Vyvx allows its customers to book time in increments that are as short as fifteen minutes for transmission of news items and short programming segments.

Smaller companies often serve as intermediaries between the users and the providers. These companies, such as Centrex, specialize in acquiring satellite time during peak demand periods. Other providers with more of an international focus include PanAmSat, Intelsat, and ComSat. ComSat is headquartered in Clarksburg, Maryland, and began operation in the 1970s. ComSat is a major investor in New Skies (the commercial component of Intelsat), which was introduced as part of the organization's move toward privatization. Intelsat was formed in 1964 and is an international satellite consortium of more than 140 member countries. Intelsat operates seventeen geostationary satellites, bringing global access to more than two hundred territories and countries worldwide.

PanAmSat is the youngest of the three major international providers. PanAmSat serves major companies such as ESPN and Associated Press Television News (APTV, which is the international television arm of the Associated Press). PanAmSat is also a primary provider of satellite services for transmission of special events, such as the 1996, 1998, and 2000 Olympic Games. When PanAmSat merged with the satellite operations division of Hughes Electronics in 1997, its fleet and support systems grew dramatically. PanAmSat operates twenty-one satellites, with plans to increase its fleet to twenty-five. PanAmSat operates seven technical ground facilities and each month beams approximately ten thousand hours of news, sports, and special events transmissions to audiences around the world.

Independent and Network News Feed Services

The primary users of satellite time for news distribution are local stations, networks, and feed services. A local station can book time unilaterally through one of the major providers, but often stations acquire transponder time through the satellite feed arm of their networks or through satellite newsgathering cooperatives. One of the first of these cooperatives was Florida News Network. The news managers of the involved stations agreed to share video via satellite, allowing each of them to increase coverage of other parts of the state. CONUS (derived from "continental United States") works on the same principle, but on a much broader scale.

CONUS is the world's largest satellite newsgathering cooperative (though not the largest feed service). The company is based in Minneapolis- St. Paul, Minnesota, with offices in New York, Washington, D.C., and London. CONUS offers a number of daily news feeds, custom live reports, and other video services to more than one hundred domestic partners. The company operates eight regional news hubs and transmits more than five hundred news stories each week. CONUS also sells and brokers satellite time via its full-time transponders on SBS-6 and operates All News Channel. In addition to working with news users, CONUS offers its services for a wide range of transmissions for educational and business applications.

The cooperative specializes in customized, live remote coverage using Ku-band satellite technology. CONUS and its members point to a strong regional presence as its biggest strength. Using the satellite trucks of its members and a few that are owned by the company itself, CONUS sends crews to remote sites to cover breaking news such as tornadoes, hurricanes, train wrecks, and other disasters. In this way, they provide a live presence to any station that wishes to include the reports in its newscasts. Stations that are owned by the same parent company often work together through their own satellite cooperatives, outfitting news crews to cover events and issues for the group stations.

CNN NewSource is not strictly a cooperative in the sense that CONUS is. NewSource is the news feed arm of the cable network CNN, which was originally founded on the idea of getting worldwide news to consumers using an extensive network of satellites. NewSource operates on a nonexclusive basis, meaning that more than one station in a market can be affiliated with CNN. In many cases, every station in a market works with CNN, and though some in the business suggest that NewSource is used to supplement rather than supplant network-run news services, it remains the dominant force in the news feed business with more than five hundred commercial news clients in the United States. Because NewSource has multiple affiliates within markets, it is able to offer its stations a choice of video shot by each of the stations in a particular market when news breaks in that area. The only restriction is that the stations in that market cannot use each other's video. This is referred to as a market embargo.

Other feed services have more of a specific focus, such as Bloomberg, which primarily feeds items about the stock market and business in general, and international news providers, such as Reuters and APTV. APTV bought World Television News (WTN) in 1998, leaving only two major suppliers of world news. ABC owned a substantial portion of WTN, and as part of the deal, APTV provides material to ABC and its affiliate news service.

As is the case with other feed services, New-Source offers franchise pieces and features on its twelve regular weekday feeds. It also works with visiting affiliates that want to do live coverage of events in Washington or in other cities in which CNN operates bureaus. NewSource is also available to university and high school news operations at no cost. Through this program, CNN occasionally receives material from its student partners and, perhaps more important, builds name recognition among those who will be making newsroom decisions in the future. In addition to NewSource, CNN also runs NewsBeam, a satellite booking service for its affiliates.

Each of the over-the-air networks offers a feed and satellite booking service for its affiliates as well. NBC News Channel is the only such operation not located in New York City. News Channel is headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina. Its personnel believe being located somewhere other than New York gives News Channel and the NBC affiliates an edge when it comes to getting the affiliates the video and live-shot capabilities that they need. This is because although News Channel is part of the network, it operates as more of a surrogate for the affiliates than it could as part of the large New York operation. Similar to its counterparts at the other networks, News Channel provides as much as six to eight hours of rolling video per day, sending up to 250 stories in twenty-two different feeds. Approximately 185 NBC affiliates do local news, and News Channel employees estimate that they provide some six hundred live reports per month to the local news operations. Some practitioners say that local stations fill between 10 and 15 percent of their news time with material from satellite feeds. To help feed this appetite for video, News Channel and its counterparts offer business and sports reports, regional coverage, and technical assistance for affiliates that want a live presence at the major national stories.

ABC's feed service is known as News One. As with other services, it has correspondents who do reports that are specifically intended for the local affiliates that use the service. These correspondents travel extensively, covering big, breaking stories and doing custom and/or generic live reports for the affiliates. NewsOne personnel estimate that the service provides some ten thousand custom live reports per year. There are approximately two hundred ABC affiliates that use NewsOne, and those affiliates receive hundreds of stories per day (including medical, consumer, and entertainment reports) for possible inclusion in their newscasts.

The CBS feed service is Newspath, which provides some three hundred to four hundred stories per day to approximately two hundred affiliates through thirteen regional offices. As is the case at the other networks, CBS Newspath works to provide its affiliates with news material for all of their daily newscasts, from predawn to late night. To meet the demand for material, Newspath feeds video every hour, twenty-four hours a day. News-path also offers its service to college and high school television news operations, the only network feed service to do so. Newspath also provides special sports feeds that allow affiliates to use material to preview NFL games that the network will televise. In addition, Newspath coordinates satellite time for nearly two hundred satellite trucks worldwide.

Fox NewsEdge supplies video to more than one hundred Fox affiliates that offer local news. Compared to the other news feed services, NewsEdge does not have as many affiliates that can contribute material. Therefore, NewsEdge tries to tailor some of its stories to make them specific to Fox affiliates and their viewers. These stories include material such as behind-the-scenes looks at popular Fox programs. As the more established feed services do, NewsEdge strives to make live shots from the sites of breaking news possible for its affiliates. NewsEdge assists affiliates with their regional news needs and provides coverage from cities, such as Washington, D.C., that generate a lot of national news.

Benefits and Costs of Satellite Services

It is common for local television stations to affiliate with more than one video feed/satellite booking service. This generally occurs because station news managers desperately want to avoid "getting beat" on a story. It would be disastrous for stations to see compelling video of a major news event that happened elsewhere in the country appear on the competitor's newscast but not on their own. Having more than one source also makes it possible for news managers to choose the best available video, which allows them to achieve two goals: (1) get material and (2) get better material than the competition.

Belonging to multiple services can be expensive, though all services charge according to market size. The networks would like to see their affiliates sever ties to other feed services, but it is important to the local stations to make sure that they can get material and set up live shots at any time they need. If that means paying for more than one service, news managers appear willing to accept that cost. However, as in any competitive environment, the degree to which a particular service is used, and, ultimately, whether contracts are renewed, depends on which outlet provides the best service at competitive rates.

The biggest benefit satellites provide to any news organization, business, or educational institution is the ability to get video and/or program material to multiple sites simultaneously. For example, well into the 1990s, advertising agencies that placed commercials on television stations in markets across the country had the expense of duplicating and shipping analog (nondigital) videotapes to each station. Being able to transmit digital signals via satellite solves that problem for advertising agencies and any other organization that is interested in top-quality video arriving on the other end of a satellite transmission. Of course, video and programming signals had been sent via satellite for years before digital technology became available, but signal breakup was always a possibility. With digital technology, the receiver gets either a crystal-clear signal or no signal at all.

Satellites, Compression, and Digital Technology

Every company that uses satellites on a regular basis is involved in the move to digital transmission, which goes hand-in-hand with signal compression, video on demand, and media convergence. Digital transmissions make it possible for those who are sending information via satellite to put more material on existing satellite transponders. With geostationary orbit already as crowded as a Los Angeles freeway, satellite users are finding ways to put more signals on existing space. Being able to compress up to six signals on a single transponder allows communications organizations to make better use of resources without having to purchase lots of transponder time from outside vendors.

Digital technology also makes news-on-demand possible. Video feed services are able to make stories available on central data servers as soon as the stories are received. News stations that wish to use the stories do not have to wait until a scheduled feed time, nor is failing to record feeds a problem with news-on-demand. Rather than rolling a videotape at a specified time and waiting until the desired item appears (or forgetting to record the feed), producers can call up a story from a central server on desktop workstations, view the story there, read the accompanying script, and download the story if they choose to use it. Some in the industry say the move to digital news-on-demand is as important as the move from film to videotape. Stories are available as soon as they are stored in a server, and they remain available indefinitely, with none of the quality loss that comes with making analog copies.


Satellites have and will continue to play a key role as media continue to converge. All media have information delivery in common, and satellites are an effective and efficient way to deliver a lot of material to a number of sites at once. Satellite businesses already deliver the Internet to fifty countries, and as print, broadcast, and online operations come together, satellites are likely to remain a mainstay in the delivery of information to audiences worldwide. Satellite providers realize that satellites are the medium that they use, notthe business that they are in; they are in the business of information delivery.

See also:Cable Television, Programming of; Cable Television, System Technology of; Digital Communication; Radio Broadcasting, Technology of; Satellites, History of; Satellites, Technology of; Telecommunications, Wireless; Telephone Industry, Technology of; Television Broadcasting, Programming and; Television Broadcasting, Technology of.


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