BERLIN — In the 1960s, East German schoolteachers liked to ask their students a loaded question: Did the clock that appeared briefly on the family television screen each night counting down the final seconds before the evening news have dots or dashes in place of numbers?
Anyone answering "dashes" was watching West German television--an act strictly forbidden by Communist authorities.
While the teachers' ploy may have briefly returned a few families to the drab state-controlled offerings of East Germany, the lure of the West's uncensored news and lively entertainment programming eventually proved so irresistible that the authorities gave up trying to control it.
It was the first crack in the Berlin Wall.
A generation later, the age of satellites and miniature TV cameras has extended television's political reach well beyond neighboring countries to places continents away.
* After watching live coverage of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin actively opposing the attempted military takeover in Moscow, President Bush and West European leaders quickly understood he had a good chance of survival. They immediately toughened their condemnation of events, a move that helped demoralize leaders of the August, 1991, coup against Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The coup quickly collapsed.
* During Kuwait's first free, national elections earlier this month--themselves an indirect fallout from the most televised war in history--candidates modeled their campaigns on those in U.S. elections shown every night via satellite TV.
* During the Gulf War, Turkish President Turgut Ozal learned that Bush valued his views when he saw his American counterpart halt a news conference to take his telephone call. Ozal was halfway around the world in his Ankara office, watching Bush live on CNN.
* This year, attempting to extend its influence into the Muslim republics of former Soviet Central Asia, Turkey launched a new satellite television service for the region's 50 million Turkic speakers. And it has contracted with France's Aerospatiale to launch its own satellite, Turksat, next year.
For better or worse--and there are plenty who harbor serious concerns about the changes--television has forever broken the limits of national boundaries. In the process, it has become a powerful and vital new force in international diplomacy and politics.
Aggressive, frequently insensitive and usually objective, it ignores national frontiers, brushes aside ideology, tramples cultural sensitivity and constantly frustrates attempts to contain it.
Its impact, already considerable, is growing. Fast.
Two years ago, CNN enjoyed a virtual monopoly on global television news. Today, inspired by the triumph of Ted Turner's idea, new commercial all-news satellite television channels with a broad international reach have either already begun transmitting or are about to do so in France, Germany, Britain, Canada and Australia.
Many expect that Japan will soon revive plans scrapped last year to beam an all-news channel throughout Southeast Asia.
At the same time, governments in Europe and Asia have started shifting their own external broadcasting arms away from short-wave radio onto satellite television. And a presidential advisory commission recently urged the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) to follow suit.
"Cross-border television is used increasingly as a tool of foreign policy," noted Britain's respected Economist magazine earlier this year.
Summed up Alexander Yakovlev, one of Gorbachev's closest aides: "Television image is everything."
He should know.
Of all the Communist world's leaders, none better understood--or used--the power of the tube more effectively than Gorbachev.
Abroad, televised images of his winsome smile, jovial nature and glamorous wife disarmed the West as effectively as any nuclear missile. At home, his TV appeals directly to the Soviet public skirted an obstructionist bureaucracy skeptical of reform and gave him the grass-roots support for a wave of change.
In time, the changes Gorbachev set in motion would boomerang against him. When they did, it was the power of television that helped sweep him away, along with his ideology, his nation and most of its empire.
For many world leaders, it was the sight of a shaken, rambling Gorbachev appearing before the cameras in the wake of the 1991 coup attempt that convinced them the baton of power in Moscow had passed to Yeltsin.
Television's global reach has changed the rules of politics elsewhere too, either directly or by the enormous influence it has exerted on domestic television fare in countries long used to tight control over broadcasting content.
Thailand's royal family last May effectively used the box to halt large-scale unrest. First, in a satellite TV interview from Paris, where she was on a state visit, the popular Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn urged Thais to end the bloodshed. Then, several days later, King Bhumibol Adulyadej arranged a televised audience with two feuding generals.