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The Future Hovers Over Latin America : New satellite will have major sociopolitical impact--and will open new markets for U.S. TV programming

November 27, 1988|VICTOR VALLE

I nsects strike a corner street light, a dog settles into the dust and, from a nearby doorway, a television set casts its chalky ray into the hot night.

The TV set is one of the first to arrive in Juanjui, a remote Peruvian village of 13,000 in the eastern Andes Mountains, and dozens of neighbors place chairs in the street to watch their first "Miami Vice" rerun.

This village on the rim of Peru's vast Amazon jungle had been outside the range of radio and TV signals broadcast from Peru's Pacific Coast. Travel to and from the isolated, coca-rich area remains difficult--using an airplane is safer than braving the weather or guerrillas on the only highway into the Upper Huallaga Valley.

But now Juanjui can see the same TV images those in the capital of Lima lust for. The Andes has a "new tower"--the Pan American Satellite--the world's first privately owned intercontinental communications satellite.

Juanjui hasn't stepped into the future yet. But in the coming months, the Alpha Lyracom company's Panamsat communications satellite will eventually push Latin American broadcasting to levels that U.S. viewers take for granted. By fostering the creation of regional government and commercial TV networks, Panamsat will have far-reaching economic and sociopolitical consequences--not all of them benign.

Parked over the Equator in a geosynchronous orbit, it will beam down the gospel of consumerism and informationism and end centuries of solitude for isolated towns like Juanjui by providing an electronic link to United States and European news and entertainment. The satellite operates like a huge electronic mirror, receiving and reflecting video and other communication signals from one Earth station to another.

The visionary behind Panamsat is Reynold Anselmo, the U.S. businessman who started Alpha Lyracom with cash made from selling his share of the United States' first Spanish-language TV chain, Spanish International Communications Corp. Anselmo's new $85-million enterprise may also create new business opportunities for Spanish-language programmers in the United States. Ultimately, Panamsat could pave the way to a One-World "Max Headroom" future where global advertisers seeking new markets can reach Latin America's more than 300-million potential viewers without leaving their New York or Tokyo board rooms.

The future isn't that far off.

After beaming portions of this summer's political conventions and the Election Day reports to South America, Atlanta-based Cable News Network has decided to transmit its 24-hour news show via Panamsat for several months on a trial basis.

Alpha Lyracom has also entered into a long-term leasing deal to transmit ECO, a 24-hour Spanish-language TV news service produced by Mexico's Televisa, to Spain via Panamsat, said Fred Landman, president of the Greenwich, Conn.-based firm.

"Between North, Central and South America and Europe, we're practically covering half the world," said Landman. The news service "is a very good example of a program that builds bridges in much the same way as CNN has in South America."

Mirror's Dark Side

Panamsat's electronic mirror, however, may have a dark side.

Some media analysts wonder if its short-term benefits may also unleash social and political forces that could push newly democratic governments back into the hands of military tyrants. TV's message of mass consumption could raise expectations the continent's inflation- and debt-ridden nations would be powerless to satisfy. Worse than the temptations of the screen, the analysts say, could be the perpetuation of Latin America's technological dependence on the United States, a country that already has 26 private satellites transmitting TV signals to North America.

The Juanjuis of Peru are "going to witness some tremendous changes," Landman said. "Not all of them will be positive, but we need to look at the final balance we arrive at. In the end, I think the good will outweigh the bad."

Academics such as Everett Rogers, a professor in USC's Annenberg School of Communications, agree that Panamsat will create its own dramatic advertising and programming opportunities by expanding the universe of TV watchers. Rogers, a specialist in Third World satellite communications, says Panamsat could double Latin America's frequent TV watchers from 80 million to 160 million in a few years.

Alpha Lyracom, however, isn't alone in South America. Mexico and Brazil operate their own national satellites, while Intelsat, the world's biggest international communications satellite system, operated by a 114-nation quasi-government consortium, is upgrading its TV service to the continent.

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