Reaching For the Sky:
The Dawn of 
Satellite News Coverage

by Jim West,
WTVT News Director, 1984-1989

Telstar 1
The commercial satellite industry blasted off in 1962 with the launch of AT&T's Telstar 1, which was capable of relaying television signals, telephone calls, and facsimile photographs.  By the late 1970's, Telstar and its descendants had plenty of company in Earth's orbit.   Besides weather and military tracking satellites, a plethora of communication satellites were in place and becoming more important to television broadcasting.

    The television networks had been using trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific satellites to transmit programming to and from other continents. A few cable networks such as the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and Home Box Office (HBO) had discovered the cost savings of programming sent via satellite to affiliated stations and cable head-ends. For the most part, local TV stations, including WTVT, were still receiving their network feeds through a microwave transmission system maintained by Ma Bell. This meant the network signal had to be repeated from tower to tower every 40 or so miles from New York to Florida.  It was an amazing achievement, particularly when Sunday football games were routed to various markets on Sunday afternoons.

Local stations that sent reporters to distant locations were occasionally able to use network satellite facilities to send completed news packages back to their station.  This was the method utilized for a week's worth of stories during WTVT's 1979 coverage of Hurricane Frederick's damage in Mobile, Al. 

WTVT photographer Lynn Rabren on
the site of  Hurricane Frederick damage