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DISH WATCHERS UNDER SIEGE : What CBS Transmits Late at Night Isn't Worth Scrambling

March 15, 1987|CECIL SMITH

SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Mexico — Futurists tell us that within a handful of years, almost all TV programs will be received not via antennas or cables or any sort of wires but by parabolic dishes--possibly no larger than dinner plates--gathering in signals directly from satellites.

If this indeed is the near future, we current dish watchers wonder why we're under a state of siege. I mean, as pioneers, you'd think we would be honored, not continually harassed.

It is understandable that such pay-TV outfits as HBO and Showtime would scramble their signals so none of us dish watchers could pick up their movies for free--I mean, sort of like sneaking into the Bijou. But it baffles us why Ted Turner's superstation, whatever it is called, or Chicago's WGN would want to scramble their pictures. Both stations are as commercial as a $2 bill. Moreover, they pepper the air with ads along with their ancient movies and worn-out series and local sports.

Don't they realize that we who live in rural areas or in such faraway foreign cities as this--and are unable otherwise to get much in the way of television--eat Kellogg's Rice Krispies and drink Bud Light and drive Datsuns and wear Maxipads just like city folk? What's the point?

There are even of late grim predictions that the commercial networks are also seriously considering scrambling their signals to thwart the dish watchers from seeing "Miami Vice" or "Dynasty" or the Super Bowl. (The Super Bowl didn't mean much in Mexico; none of the Mexican stations carried it.)

Particularly, CBS. Which is not surprising. CBS has always fought against progress or any sort of change with both feet. CBS damn near missed out on acquiring key TV outlets because the network apparently felt that radio was the ticket, that TV was just a flash in the tube. And later it was CBS that for nearly a decade tried to keep color TV from happening.

A CBS executive was quoted in some periodical or other not long ago as to why he felt that dish watchers should not be permitted to pull out of the air such material as "The Equalizer" and "Murder, She Wrote" and "My Sister Sam," even though they arrived festooned with ads for Arid and Advil and a score of other products fired from the screen in 30-second bursts. He said, as I recall, that picking up a satellite signal was the same sort of thing as listening in on a private telephone call. I mean, we were party-line snoops privy to things we weren't supposed to hear or see.

Now that fascinated me. What sorts of things?

Did CBS in the pallid hours of the early morning send out surreptitious material via satellite that it didn't want the public to see? I mean, did sniggling, suggestive art fly out through the air for the private enjoyment of affiliates along the line? Ronnie Reagan, say, in his underwear, or Jesse Helms in his brown shirt? Dirty pictures? Seemed little point, with the Playboy Channel's supply.

Years ago, when I was wondering how a joke or an anecdote invented, say, in Los Angeles could spread through the bars of New York the next morning, I was told that telegraphers in the dead hours of the night telegraphed jokes or gossip or anecdotes to each other over the wires. Was that what CBS was doing--passing on gossip via satellite, or voicing the latest scandal on the 20th floor of Black Rock? I resolved to find out for myself.

Now I have reached an age where anything after 10 p.m. loses me, where Carson and Dave Letterman and those predawn folks might as well be telecasting on Mars. But with the aid of a trusty VHS recorder, I managed over a period of several nights to monitor what CBS and other networks were bouncing off the satellites.

Well, there were promotions. Lots of promotions. There were little squibs urging us to watch Dan Rather and telling us that Tom Brokaw knew about Irangate before anybody else. There were squibs on the hilarious action we might expect from the next edition of "Newhart" or what bikini-clad bimbo Magnum would be involved with. You didn't get just one of each of these, you got three or four variations, which, apparently, local stations could scatter through their schedules.

We got weather maps. No weathermen, just weather maps. The map just sat there with all those funny lines across it and evidence of snow or rain or whatever was happening. Kind of interesting, just looking at the map with no Dr. George to tell you what you were seeing.

We got bits and pieces of news. No descriptions or evidence as to what we were seeing. Just snips of stuff that would be stuffed into local newscasts for marcelled local newscasters to describe. We had snippets of sports, guys shoving balls into baskets or hitting them over fences.

We also got lots and lots of blank air. Broken occasionally by information that seemed to be chalked onto a blackboard about how many minutes this or that would run.

All in all, it was pretty disappointing. I mean, if you're snooping in on a private phone line, gee, you ought to come back with a juicy scandal or a bit of gossip or a picture of Mike Wallace in his underwear, or something!

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