The Future Hovers Over Latin America : New satellite will have major sociopolitical impact--and will open new markets for U.S. TV programming
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.
In past years, Alpha Lyracom has accused Intelsat and its member government broadcasters of promoting an international boycott against its Panamsat satellite by putting up bureaucratic roadblocks that prevent Panamsat’s signal from being received within their territories. Intelsat denies slamming any doors shut on Panamsat, arguing that it has recently increased Panamsat’s access to its member countries.
Though tensions between Intelsat and his company have decreased somewhat, Landman said, “it nevertheless remains a fiercely competitive situation.” Panamsat, therefore, still risks the possibility that it will never get enough customers to lease or buy its transponder space.
For Some, a Miracle
But how will Panamsat change life in towns like Juanjui? The Peruvian government views the satellite as a miracle descended from the heavens.
“We have problems only a satellite can solve,” said Juan Bartet, Peru’s vice minister of communications and transportation, from Lima. “Peru has the Andes mountain chain and high concentrations of its population in the mountains.
“Most of these people live near sources of water, which usually places them at the bottom of deep gorges or canyons. In the Amazon Basin, we have dense jungle that blocks normal (TV and radio signals). The only answer is satellite communications.”
Technically speaking, Peru had other choices beyond Panamsat. Peru had considered Intelsat, which operates 14 satellites around the world, including several over Latin America. But the problem, Bartet says, is that only a small percentage of Intelsat’s transmitting capacity is reserved for TV broadcasting--and that capacity already is taken.
Peru had another reason for choosing Panamsat in 1985. Desperate to break what it claimed was Intelsat’s boycott, Alpha Lyracom offered Peruvian President Alan Garcia a deal he couldn’t refuse: the use of a high-powered video transponder covering Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and northern Chile for $1 a year. Garcia jumped at the offer.
Today, Bartet has plans for a network operated by the Ministry of Education that will bounce a signal off the satellite to about 2,000 6 1/2-foot satellite dishes in Peru. Panamsat will also retransmit TV signals for two Peruvian commercial networks, which, Bartet says, should boost the nation’s population of TV sets now estimated at about 4 million--a relatively low number for a nation of 21 million.
The 13-station La Panamericana Network, one of two Lima-based broadcasters that have jointly bought a Panamsat transponder, expects to begin using the satellite as early as December to reach the 35% of Peru’s inhabitants who are now unable to receive TV signals.
Panamericana’s president, Genaro Delgado Parker, expects the company’s programming mix to remain the same--about a quarter of its schedule will be dedicated to Spanish-dubbed, U.S.-produced re-runs such as “Moonlighting”; the rest will be set aside for Latin-American productions such as “Nina Moza,” a soap about slavery in Brazil.
Peruvian officials have their own political motives for setting up a government TV network: the spreading, drug-financed insurgencies of the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and Marxist-Leninist Tupac Amaru, two guerrilla groups especially strong in the Andean highlands and Amazonian jungles of Peru.
First, there’s the nettlesome problem of protecting a national communications grid from guerrillas who routinely dynamite government microwave towers. “It’s impossible to protect all the microwave towers,” Bartet says. “So this satellite is a defense of sorts against the Shining Path.”
And then there’s the ideological war raging in the Andes and around Juanjui, where guerrillas and government troops have skirmished for control of the jungle town, strategically located in the Upper Huallaga Valley, alias the “Golden Triangle” of cocaine--the world’s most productive coca-growing region.
Broadcasting health, nutrition and agriculture classes to its more than 3 million Quechua- and Aymara-speaking inhabitants in the Andes and jungles comes with a built-in political agenda, Bartet said. The government hopes to integrate these groups into Peru’s political and economic mainstream by encouraging Spanish literacy over these Indian languages.
“The Sendero terrorists like to exploit ignorance,” Bartet says. “So the presence of television will help ‘Castillianize’ these people. We’ll be able to give them literacy classes now, and education and entertainment shows will help bring civilization to these towns.”
Bartet’s concept of pacification through TV education sounds patronizing to some anthropologists who claim the education ministry’s literacy programs may in fact speed up the disintegration of one of the Western Hemisphere’s oldest civilizations. Herbert Schiller, a professor of communications at UC San Diego and author of several books on mass media in the Third World, sees a political threat in the introduction of Panamsat.
“As you funnel in advertising for breakfast cereals, or hair tonic, you create a whole new set of expenditures for people who already have limited incomes,” Schiller said. The rising expectations set off by TV-inspired consumption may eventually undermine Peru’s political leaders, he adds. “These forces could make it very difficult for a socially concerned leader to draft prorams that can win popular support because any attempts at building a national consensus are going to be undercut by a desire for consumer goodies.”
John S. Nichols, a communications professor at Penn State University and a Caribbean and Central American mass media specialist, concurs: “Introducing TV to a poor Andean village is not a panacea. It may even do harm, especially if a villager spends his money on a TV set instead on an electric pump for his well.”
Panamericana’s Delgado suggests that these Cassandra-like warnings are themselves patronizing. The president of Peru’s largest network claims that television often provides rural areas a strong incentive for exchanging candles for electric light bulbs. The network’s experience is that whenever a TV signal enters a virgin market, he says, electrification soon follows.
Alpha’s Landman argues Delgado’s logic a bit further: “We’ve got a value judgment here. What’s more important, the water pump or the TV set? I believe the TV could be just as lifesaving as that pump.”
And he repeats two often-heard refrains: No country has become a modern industrial state without efficient electronic communications; Panamsat could help democratize authoritarian regimes such as Chile’s by hastening the flow of information.
Prescribing technological solutions for old political quandaries has the ring of classic Yankee pragmatism. Recent political events in Chile, however, complicate any predictions.
In Chile, there are only two national TV broadcasters, the government-run Television Nacional de Chile (TVN) and Canal 13, a nonprofit TV network run by the Catholic University of Chile in Santiago. Government officials say TVN will discard its relatively antiquated microwave broadcasting system for Panamsat’s larger, more efficient broadcast umbrella that can cover the full 2,650-mile length of Chile.
But Valerio Fuensalida, a media analyst with the Center of Communication and Cultural Studies (CINECA), an independent Santiago-based research group, also suspects that the government is going to permit the creation of Chile’s first commercial network.
This new source of information for viewers won’t necessarily speed up Chile’s return to democracy, said Fuensalida. He fears that the generals who run Chile will try to control the new channel for their own political ends by choosing its board of directors for 10-year terms.
“It would be a change of masks which would allow the government to regain some credibility by allowing an alternative source of information with the appearance of some neutrality,” Fuensalida said. But the government has prevented debate on this issue by refusing to explain how it will amend Chile’s communications laws, he said.
A TVN official who asked not to be identified said he could talk only about the project’s technical aspects, but acknowledged that government managers are seriously considering using Panamsat to create Chile’s first private TV network.
Since Panamsat’s June 15 launch, Alpha Lyracom’s entry into Argentina has been blocked by a government bureaucracy caught between the nation’s state-run telephone and telegraph cartel and seven TV stations that want to become a satellite-linked network.
On one side is Alejandro Massot, president of Argentine Television Producers Group, a cooperative that made a $1-million down payment on a Panamsat transponder it can’t use yet. The reason: Argentina’s national telecommunication’s agency has backed down from enforcing a bill, signed into law this year, that partially rescinded older laws prohibiting TV networks.
On the other side is Entel of Argentina, a member of Intelsat and the nation’s only telephone and telegraph operator. In a nation where TV networks are outlawed by government regulations, Entel also controls Argentina’s TV industry because it owns the microwave grid that broadcasters must rely on to transmit their programs to other stations. This has stunted Massot’s station group because it can’t get access to Entel’s crowded microwave system. As result, the group’s individual stations must physically transport videotapes to their sister stations in North Central Argentina.
Massot had hoped to get around the bottleneck by transmitting programs via Panamsat to its sister stations--a development that could expand the group’s broadcast umbrella over 31 million Argentines, and millions more in Chile, Uruguay and parts of Paraguay and southern Brazil.
“The Entels of the world have tried to stymie our efforts,” says Alpha’s Landman, who also accuses the Intelsat consortium of encouraging similar delays in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
“Panamsat has raised all kinds of heck that Intelsat is being unfair,” Says Bruce Crockett, president of Comsat World Systems, Intelsat’s U.S. representative. “From my perspective, it’s merely a case of Panamsat getting a healthy dose of competition. Competition works two ways.”
Still, Crockett acknowledges, “At the time that (Panamsat) was only a dream in the eye of Mr. Anselmo, the owners of Intelsat worked cooperatively to try and protect their own system.” At one point, Intelsat even passed a resolution calling for a Panamsat boycott.
But today, Crockett maintains, this is all water under the bridge. Intelsat has recently allowed Panamsat to operate in four European countries, the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Chile and Costa Rica--toeholds that will allow Anselmo’s company to sell its wares on the lucrative transatlantic trade route between Europe and the United States, and thereby fund its long-term plans in Latin America.
Too Good to Pass Up
Despite the challenges, Alpha Lyracom’s Landman is confident that would-be clients will find Panamsat too good to pass up: “Why should Argentina go another $250 million in debt for its own satellite system? Here’s a $6.2-million investment they can get the same quality signal on, and they can have it today.”
He also stresses that Alpha’s financial risks--$85 million so far--have been exaggerated: “This is not a quick-buck scheme. The investment’s been made. The money has been spent. Additional money will go out, but the other costs are less and will be spread out over time.”
Moreover, Alpha Lyracom has recently landed a few new short-term contracts, including one in which France’s La Cinq TV network used Panamsat to beam U.S. election reports back to France. Still, transnational advertisers aren’t exactly clambering aboard Panamsat. At the moment, most TV advertisers are satisfied to sell their products in Latin American big cities instead of a whole continent of viewers.
But some private satellite operators and advertisers argue that the long-term prospect of increased viewership in Latin American is too tantalizing to ignore.
“This is really a fascinating project,” says Carlos Kravetz, vice president of Ferrer Ad America, one of the biggest Latino-focused ad agencies on the West Coast and Mexico. In some ways, he says, it’s really more interesting than the Pan-European satellite network slated for 1992, when the Common Market nations drop their last trade barriers.
“They have so many languages to contend with” in Europe, he says. “In Latin America, we have a wonderful situation. Except for (Portuguese-speaking) Brazil, everyone speaks Spanish.” These new advertising opportunities, he predicts, will mature in four years.
When that day comes, he adds, U.S.-based Spanish-language networks such as Univision and Telemundo can expect to win new markets, which will reduce the dominance and provincialism of Latin-American TV programming.
Moreover, Kravetz believes that U.S. Latinos, as a microcosm of Latin-American diversity, will inevitably be the ones to mold the new Pan-Latin images implicit in Panamsat’s name.
“Among all Latinos in the world, the U.S. Hispanic is the most dynamic economic force. He is interacting with the U.S., with Japanese interests. He is living closer to the future than the people they left behind at home. I think the U.S. Latino is really the leading edge of where (the Spanish-speaking) world is heading.”
Tom Lutgen and Doug Conner in The Times’ Editorial Library helped research this article.
The idea behind a communications satellite like Panamsat is quite simple. It’s nothing more than an elaborate electronic mirror dangling in stationary orbit thousands of miles above the Equator that permits broadcasters to transmit TV signals by bouncing them off reflecting surfaces called transponders. Six of the Panamsat’s 24 transponders are designed to handle communications between Europe and North and South America. A soccer match from Barcelona, for instance, can be transmitted via Panamsat to a ground station in Miami, where it can then be relayed to anywhere in North or South America via the satellite. The satellite, which has life expectancy of about 12 years, also handles data, telex and radio communications for financial, manufacturing and mining industries. It costs $12.4 million to buy one of the more powerful transatlantic transponders and $6.2 million for those aimed at the Americas.