A big debate is now taking place all over the Nordic countries. This debate concerns the feasibility and desirability of bringing into orbit a satellite system for the relay of Nordic TV-programs to every Nordic home. This project has been named Nordsat.
The formal origin of this debate can be traced to a statement issued by the Nordic Council in 1972, which recommended closer cooperation between Nordic states in the area of TV production, programming and distribution.
As this debate concerns the deployment of vast financial and organisational resources and a long-term commitment to a highly hierarchical systems structure, it is important to know WHY the debate about Nordic cooperation in the area of TV came to focus on satellite technology and WHY it is kept going – ahead of technological development – with unprecedented determination.
Who are the highly motivated patrons of Nordsat?
Public debates never emerge from the void. When a debate extends to five countries, is supported by the highest echelons of public authority and persists for a long time, one can assume that those who have initiated it and keep it going are (a) highly motivated; (b) possess skills in the appropriate field; and (c) possess ample resources. Which entities possess such attributes?
When scanning over the Nordic landscape, there doesn’t appear to be a single organisation, association or institution that has these three main attributes. In fact, most public organisations and associations in the Nordic countries have shown tempered enthusiasm towards Nordsat. Many have been officially solicited on their view and have expressed their concern regarding social and cultural effects that could ensue from Nordsat (1)
There are however other forces at work that have the necessary motivation, skills, determination and resources to engineer such a debate and turn it into a campaign. These are the international business groups who view Nordsat primarily as a potential source of profits.
The purpose of this paper is to substantiate these remarks by identifying these business groups and show that stakes are involved in this issue.
Four main interest groups are to gain by Nordsat
Nordsat involved massive cash flows, from public authorities (taxpayers) and individual TV-set owners (consumers) to producers of systems, appliances and goods. Who are these producers and what are they trying to sell?
A Nordic ministerial committee has issued extensive reports about the economic, technical, cultural and legal aspects of Nordsat (2). These reports are available at the Ministries of Culture of all Nordic countries. It is interesting that these reports do not mention the existence of powerful interest groups behind Nordsat and play down the total costs of Nordsat to be borne by the Nordic populations.
Let us evaluate the value of business opportunities opened up by Nordsat, according to four main groups of private business interests.
1. The interests of the space industry are significant. According to the ministerial committee’s reports, the value of the space sement (including satellites, launching vehicles, telemetry, etc.) is estimated SKr. 575 million. (3) The PTT authorities of Norway and Sweden question, however, the validity of the assumptions used for estimating these costs, especially in regard to the reliability of the space segment and the quality of transmitted signals. Specifically, they doubt that the solar cells of two satellites (as proposed in the Ministerial reports) would generate sufficient power to distribute the required number of TV programs to the homes of millions of viewers. These doubts are corroborated by an independent source. In an article published in The New York Times, Febr. 1, 1978, regarding environmental hazards of nuclear-powered satellites, the author expressed concern about President Carter’s plans of banning the use of such satellites. For, according to this author, “nuclear reactors would provide an economical source of power to supersatellites of the future, such as those that would be used for direct TV-broadcasting”.
The Norwegian PTT and three Nordic broadcasting autorities estimate that 4-5 heavy satellites would be needed, should internationally approved guidelines on signal-quality be respected. (4)
In addition, some of the abovementioned institutions have pointed out the need for more spare satellites, as a condition for reliable operation. (5)
Thus, according to the PTT of Norway and Sweden, the total value of the space segment could amount to over Skr. 1.1 billion. (6)
2. The interests of the electronics consumers industry are still larger than those of the space industry, although they are better hidden in the Ministerial reports (7). If one uses the average unit costs estimated in these reports and the distribution of TV-sets by housing type (taking into consideration the use of central antennae in large buildings) (8), one can approximate the size of the consumer market for antennae and adaptors. The value of the Nordic market for these appliances (excl. installation costs) turns out to be Skr. 5.6 to 5.9 billion. (9) Although this figure is very igh (it compares for example with the GNP of Iceland), it may actually become still higher. Some critics point out that the technology needed for high-quality reception of satellite broadcasts, is not yet commercially available for home use, and may turn out more expensive than expected. (10) Others imply that the use of Nordsat will not become widespread until text-decoders will be available as built-in parts of TV-sets (text-decoders are devices that allow viewers to choose their language for subtitles) (11). The costs of adding text-decoders to conventional TV sets have been estimated Skr. 400-2000 per set (11), or for the entire Nordic market Skr. 2,8 to 14,0 billion (based on 7 million TV sets in the Nordic countries). The wide variation in this estimate is due to the fact, that this technology is not yet commercially available.
Although the electronics consumers industry is not as concentrated (monopolized) as the space industry, the amounts needed to finance a continuous R&D effort in the area of microwave communications (such as for home antennae needed for Nordsat), can only be afforded by the most powerful corporations. These corporations cannot be expected to relinquish their market control by transferring their technological know-how to smaller Nordic firms. It is however possible that Nordic electronics firms could be co-opted into the Nordsat project by becoming sub-contractors of these corporations. This may explain the positive attitude displayed by Nordic business and industry circles towards Nordsat. (12)
3. A third group of business interests is represented by international distributors of TV programs. The introduction of Nordsat will inevitably result in the elimination of duplicate TV-programs acquired from international distributors. This will free a certain amount of TV-hours. This TV-time could be filled by locally produced programs. Experience has however shown that where expediency prevails and lack of funds, free TV-time is filled by cheap, imported programs. The rationalization brought about by Nordsat increases therefore the market for internationally distributed TV-programs.
As no information is availble regarding the extent of eventual rationalization in programming and due to the comparatively modest amounts involved in the purchase of TV programs (skr. 40 million a year for the entire Nordic area), there is little evidence that this business group affects the Nordsat issue significantly.
4. The last and most pervasive group of corporate powers are multinational producers of consumer goods. The influence of these business entities on the Nordsat issue is not directly discernible. There is however ample evidence showing that these corporations are conscious of the commercial and ideological functions provided by broadcasting satellites (13).
Commerical interests will served if and when Nordsat becomes the main advertizing tool in Nordic countries. Several reasons explain why this is likely to occur. There is the problem of financing the public segment of Nordsat, both to start with and thereafter (renewal of equipment and modernization). It is indeed tempting for the manager of broadcasting authorities to press for financial independence, so that instead of waiting for appropriations from conservative state budgets they prefer raising money from advertizers, who eager to do so. This financing method has already been proposed by a few Nordic organisations, such as the Danish Fjernseerforbundet (14). This is incidentally a typical course followed by numerous European broadcasting authorities, who initially resisted advertising. The fact that Nordsat would “deliver” an audience of up to 22 million to multinational advertisers, is in addition a strong incentive for them to intensify their lobbying activities in Nordic parliaments and increase the P/R activities through thepress for the introduction or extension of TV advertising. The push and pull caused by these complementary forces must perfoce overwhelm the generally passive attitude of the public towards the commercialization of the media.
The ideological interests of multinational firms supported by Nordsat are long-term, and fuzzy interests, but nevertheless significant. The cultural attributes carried by Nordsat – growing homogenization of culture, tastes and life-styles, the passivization of the public, the erosion of cultural and national heritage, etc – strengthen a cosmopolitan and consumerist ideology, that makes people more receptive to corporate marketing messages. Such ideological aims have been stated repeatedly by managers of multinational firms, although they are usually dressed in “brotherhood of nations” language.
We have now identified the main interest groups concerned with the promotion of Nordsat and estimated some of the revenues that Nordsat could accrue to these groups.
Other potential costs related to Nordsat, to be paid by the Nordic populations include:
a. Installation costs for antennae and adaptors, estimated for the entire Nordic area Skr. 1.7 bilion (9);
b. Extensions of the terrestrial network of relay-stations. According to the PT of Norway and Sweden, such extensions are necessary, if Nordsat’s programs are to be extended to all citizens in Norway, Finland, Sweden, Faroe Isles and Iceland, including those living in “shaded” areas. For Norway alone the costs of such extentions are estimated at Skr. 300 million (6).
c. Operation costs of the Nordsat system, including technical personnel, management and translation costs, are estimated Skr. 79 million a year.
Is Nordsat a trial balloon in a global marketing strategy?
Although the amounts involved by Nordsat are measured in billions of Skr., the stakes are actually much larger than that. For if Nordsat should succeed – from the perspective of vested interest groups – it will make it easier for them to sell that concept all over the world. The amounts involved on a global scale in markets created by the technology of direct broadcasting satellites, are astronomical and explain why these business groups look with great expectations to the Nordsat experiment.
And indeed, Nordsat is an experiment. Nowhere in the world has an attempt yet been made to introduce a cross-national system of satellite broadcasting, nor have any satellites been placed into orbit that have the power needed to beam half a dozen TV programs to the homes of several million receivers (15).
But Nordsat is not only a technological experiment, to be carried out in the 80s. Already today we, the Nordic peoples, carry out social and cultural experimentation by studying in depth and debating at large the social, cultural, political and legal facts of the satellite concept. Those who are not preparing their marketing strategies for the time when they will be ready to sell their satellites and other appliances around the world, are now accumulating knowledge from the debate raging in Nordic countries.
By monitoring this debate, these sophisticated marketeers learn how to deal effectively with local and national apprehensions; how to isolate cultural workers’ associations form the rest of society; how to manipulate the public and public officials, induce them either to demand Nordsat or resign themselves to it in the name of creeping technology; how to find in each country private companies willing to support the satellite project and gain by it financially; how to circumvent legal hurdles particular to each country; and so on.
In this paper, an attempt was made to relate the seemingly legitimate debate about Nordsat to four groups of private interest groups operating in the international market. The extent of these interests and the forcefulness characterizing the Nordsat debate contribute to the suspicion that Nordsat is mainly a sales campaign of international corporations.
The enthusiasm towards Nordsat shown by Nordic electronics firms an d by advertizing agencies and the indifference, or even hostility displayed by popular associations and cultural workers, add consistence to the above charge.
It seems that a genuine call for closer cultural cooperation between Nordic people, represented in part by the statement of the Nordic Council (mentioned earlier), has been distorted and re-defined by commercial motives. The original intent of the Nordic Council’s statement must be re-affirmed. It is therefore imperative to find and establish alternative forms for Nordic cultural cooperation, which will be based on bilateral exchanges, low technological dependence, decentralized structure and participate democracy. While such alternative forms should be sought, there is no justification in pursuing the Nordsat issue any further.
(1) “Nordisk radio och television via satellit: Remissammanställning”, report nr. NU B 1977: 36 publi. by the Secretariat for Nordic Cultural Cooperation
(2) “Nordisk radio och television via satellit: Statssekreterargruppens slutbetänkande”, report nr. NU A 1977:7 (Final Report) and report nr. NU A 1977:8 (technical attachments) and report nr. NU A 1977:9 (legal attachments).
(3) According to the FInal report (see (2)), p. 184, the cost are distributed as follows:
2 satellites: Skr. 300 m.
Costs for launching 2 satellites (Ariane): Skr. 200 m.
Sending stations, one per country: Skr. 25 m.
Tracking station: Skr. 50 m.
Total: Skr. 575 m.
(4) See “Remissammanställning” p. 58
(5) See “Remissammanställning” p. 59
(6) See “Remissammanställning” p. 67
(7) See “Vissa samhällsekonomiska aspekter” in the Final Report, p. 67
(8) See Technical Attachments, report NU A 1977:8, pp. 300-307
(9) The total costs is calculated as follows:
4 million individual receivers @ Skr. 1,640 = Skr. 6,600 millions
2,7 million receivers attached to central antennae @ Skr. 250-300 = Skr. 675-810 million
150 thousands receivers in row-housing units @ Skr. 300-650 = Skr. 45 to 97 million
90 thousands receivers in free-standing villas @ Skr. 600-1200 = Skr. 54 to 108 million
In total: Skr. 7.334 to 7.575 billion
Minus installation costs: Skr. 1,680 to 1,680 millions
Net value accruing to producers of appliances: Skr. 5,654 to 5,895 millions.
(10) See “Remissammanställning” p. 68
(11) See “Remissammanställning” p. 69
(12) See for example “Remissammanställning” pp. 75-77
(13) See “Mass Communications and American Empire” by Herbert I. Schiller, publ. by Beacon Press, Boston, 1971; “Global Reach: The Power of the Multinational Corporation”, by Richard J. Barnet and Ronald E. Müller, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1974; “Actuel développement” no. 18, 3-4/77, Paris, Groupement d’édition et d’information technique, économique et culturelle.
(14) See “Remissammanställning” p. 75
(15) See “Satellite Communications and Terrestrial Networks” by Leang P. Yeh, in Telecommunications, Oct. 1977, p. 30