WORLDNET - Branding America for President Reagan
by Alan Simpson
It was in the dark depths of the Cold War. The US invasion of Grenada, thought of as a great liberating victory in Washington, was greeted with hilarity and ridicule by the rest of the world. President Reagan, the "Great Communicator" was frustrated. Why was he being ridiculed for such a noble deed?
President Reagan wanted a concept for a unique global satellite television network, to be the most significant leap forward in information technology of it's era. He wanted to disseminate information to the whole world, and get immediate feedback from audiences around the world. He wanted to challenge the Soviet Union and work towards the downfall of communism. It was a masterpiece of political intelligence, collecting informed views from audiences worldwide, and disseminating information to media sources on a massive scale.The task was to create a global communications network that crossed national, political and economic boundaries, without hindrance and without the fear of the information flow being blocked. He wanted to bypass the media filters of the Washington reporters. Few in the US know of its existence.
The responsibility of exploring a "conduit of understanding" to the rest of the world was given to the flamboyant Charles Z. Wick, who had been appointed as Director of the United States Information Agency. Charles Wick, was once a band leader, and Hollywood producer, responsible for such movies as "Snow White and the Three Stooges". He ran his USIA assignment as a Director runs a Hollywood set. As it turned out his abrasive style of management proved ideal for this difficult and enormous task.
The only medium that held this promise was satellite broadcasting, still in its infancy. The carriage of international satellite television and radio had been in existence since 1962, when President Kennedy made a short trans-Atlantic broadcast. It was though, the jealously guarded domain of the PTT's, the national telecommunications agencies. Monopolies one and all. Overpriced, inefficient, bureaucratic monoliths. There were several studies done, all negative. Major communications consultancies, and the great "think tanks" in Washington could not see any future for "private" global communications. Charles Wick had to start his Information War, using the resources of the Telecom monopolies.
The "EURONET" system was created, transmitting statements, and video conferences over the Intelsat system, and along the PTT's microwave links and land lines to a small number of European countries. This method was cumbersome, very expensive and with countries like France, subject to "technical difficulties" if the French government or unions, did not like the message being transmitted. It was point-to-point and not available to the public. Thousands of tapes were distributed, welcomed by broadcasters, and generally wiped clean and reused. (Several years later one third world broadcaster complained bitterly about the new satellite service, as it robbed him of his source of free U-matic videotape, a very expensive item.)
Frustrated Charles Wick turned to Visnews, (now Reuters), the global news organization in London. This is where I became involved in the project. Earlier in 1983 I had outlined global satellite broadcasting to Owen Patterson, the Visnews satellite videoconferencing expert. Owen had remembered the conversation, called me to London and we addressed the USIA question. The plan was created and put to USIA, along with the FCC, White House, DoD, State and other interested agencies, in Washington. On the negative side I warned Visnews that should they get the contract they risked retaliation from the Soviet bloc, and stood to lose 60% of their news feed, the purpose of EURONET and later WORLDNET being perceived as US propaganda. The retaliation of the communist and neutral countries would have crippled the news agency. Fortunately Visnews did not get the transmission contract, the French were the lowest bidder, the newsgathering arm of Visnews heaved a sigh of relief.
The problem was that only a handful of people knew the cutting edge technologies, and had experience negotiating at senior level to establish a global network cutting across national and international boundaries. Earlier I had launched Satellite Communications, Ltd in rural England, for just that purpose, developing global television news networks. This was modeled on a military intelligence center, with the ability to handle hundreds of inputs of open source information from around the world, and source technological answers to the many transmission and logistics problems. A fully equipped broadcast news studio enabled the company to originate development programs for testing the satellite circuits and receiving equipment.
Because the network was planned with new innovative technology every piece of equipment had to be sourced, studied and tracked, along with vendors, installers and suppliers in every country.
Few knew if this satellite technology would work on such a large scale. The team learned to work around microwave alarm systems, badly constructed microwave links, and a whole slate of logistic and engineering nightmares.
USIA contracted with me, through the US Embassy in London, to survey all the US Embassies and Consulates for suitability, brief the key personnel and report back. As time was of the essence, the task of surveying the key Embassies in London, Paris, Bonn, Brussels, The Hague, Geneva, Rome and Madrid was offered and accepted. Many US companies complained about the contract going to a British company, but all agreed that no US company had the experience in global Ku systems, and had explored the concepts of interactive global news at that time.
This was the start of traveling to 125 Embassies and Consulates, surveying, measuring and writing report after report. Immediately there were many governments who were hostile to any attempts to increase the communication powers of the United States, and dirty tricks appeared on a daily basis. Fortunately the nerve centre was based on military intelligence procedures, from an earlier life, and these threats were easily identified, incorporated and neutralized on our real time tracking boards. Most high level issues were solved by meeting face to face with the in-country US Ambassador and host government officials. I even represented WorldNet at hostile public inquiries, as well as making it routine to pay a visit to the nation's TV stations. Often helping them with their feeds helped USIA get WorldNet onto the air.
Traveling around, on a UK passport, with a portable spectrum analyzer, RF heads and associated equipment, illegal and banned in most countries, was a unique learning experience. Few countries could give us the data we needed, although most did not want anyone outside their borders knowing the extent of interference problems, signal strengths and signal paths. Out of nearly a hundred countries, only a young customs officer in India offered a challenge. He was doing a night class in electronics. Fortunately in the crush of Bombay Airport, his findings were dismissed by his superior, telling him to shut up, it was only a portable television.
Against all odds, the satellite delivered system was planned and implemented, in record time. At the end of August helpful cable companies around Europe were asked to look at the ECS1 satellite and monitor a "test feed" from Washington. This quietly proved the system. For the next seven months surveys, meetings with Embassy and PTT officials, and spectrum analysis across Europe were undertaken. Never before had such a comprehensive analysis been carried out.
Remember nobody had ever created a monolithic reception system from a single Ku band satellite across the entire continent of Europe. At that time every country in Europe used these frequencies for any use the Government desired. Some were used for satellite broadcasting, others for security, or data links. As long as the local telecom monopoly controlled their use they could block any project that caused them problems. For example in one Embassy the satellite signal and the electronic intrusion detection system were on the same frequency!
On April 8th the first dish, with electronics specially produced in Japan, were temporally assembled at a hotel in London. Here on the 9th the project was unveiled to US Embassy, Public Affairs Counselors from across Europe. Under heavy security the workings of the distribution network was explained.
Following this two day briefing the dish and all its electronics were dismantled, moved across London and assembled on the roof of the US Embassy. On the 10th of April 1985 the first downlink of the first global satellite television network became operational. "WORLDNET" was born.
This was the first global link operational years before any other broadcaster could create a comparable network. It was a pioneering step in many ways, and began the information war against the Soviet Union. Governments and broadcasters eagerly called for data to enable them to develop Ku band reception in their countries. The many conflicts between the fledgling satellite broadcasting service, and terrestrial microwave networks became apparent for the first time, to the alarm of satellite developers. It was many months before the first satellite antenna was installed for CNN, after I surveyed their London newsroom. It would be many years before Visnews created their Teleport, exactly as proposed years earlier.
From this small step in London the project moved forward by leaps and bounds covering Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Australia. The flexibility given to us by USIA to develop the system aggravated many in Washington, and few would learn of the many meetings between myself, US Ambassadors and Government Ministers across the world to get this project off the ground. Even Alvin Snyder sanitized this from his version of WorldNet in "Warriors of Disinformation."
From the two USIA production studios in Washington, positive programs on America and its values, were beamed to the world, with a lot of puff pieces of "suitable" politicians. This political patronage increased in later years and effectively destroyed the network content for the average viewer. Interactive video conferences were held, eventually on a weekly basis, allowing journalists and politicians around the world to question the leaders of the Reagan Administration.
This was a powerful tool in the fight against communism. At last anyone could see the US government working. President Reagan was again seen as the "Great Communicator". The pioneering use of global video conferences managed to diffuse many antagonistic issues, as well as allowing local TV hosts to appear to question US leaders.
Up to 1989 broadcasters from around the world would call me for "Neutral" advice on how to use WorldNet, without seeming to be, as many explained a "Propaganda Puppet of Washington" . These questions from broadcasters brought us a unique insight into how the global political television process worked. They were willing to say to us comments they would not say to the USIS staff, or the Embassy diplomats. Unfortunately the political appointees in USIA chose to listen to their own words, instead of the global marketplace. Again WorldNet was killed by the political appointees in Washington, DC not understanding the needs of the global audience. The cables being circulated should have been proof had they looked carefully at the level of "sanitization" up the chain of command.
Along the road to achieving the goal of President Reagan, many "firsts" were achieved by our small team of network planners and "Super Salesmen". The first private satellite dishes in over 20 countries, the first comprehensive analysis of RF interference in every major city, the first negotiations for reception and rebroadcast of US TV in virtually every country we visited.
At the Vatican, I joined Marconi in conducting only the second survey and analysis. Also at the Vatican the official opening of the US Embassy, amid the glittering dignitaries was filmed for the record. This was the first Embassy of the United States opened since 1940's. The vast majority of the Ambassadors used these visits to learn the facts behind WorldNet and using television to "Get the Message Across". Again little was sent back to Washington, and the figures were often inflated beyond belief, "for political expediency."
Presidential Summits with Reagan and Gorbachev in Geneva and Rekjavik. Public hearings in Vienna and press conferences in Sri Lanka, all building toward a global network. The effect of this flow of information on the communist block was traumatic.
Nowhere was it more obvious than the day the system was made operational in Bucharest, Romania. Minutes after this dish, the first link bringing western, uncensored television behind the "Iron Curtain" was handed over, over 2000 people lined up to take their first glimpses of free speech and free media. So many people that each group watched the TV screen for just 5 minutes, enough to glimpse the future.
The politicians believed that they were the stars. They were not! It was the American way of life, sports, celebrities, cowboys and daily life in America that were the TV people wanted to see. Unfortunately the ego of political appointees told them, and the politicians otherwise.
The original plan was for this global information network to be able to carry analog television, radio and data, reaching every citizen in the world. At the end of the Reagan Administration these capabilities had been accomplished. America and the free world had the information tool to defeat all the misinformation from Moscow.
In the light of developments of Internet, fiber-optics and digital satellites we may forget the achievements using the early analog systems that laid the foundations for global communications. Today ComLinks.com reaches every one of these countries, through the open telecommunications circuits of a totally different world, than existed even ten years ago.
And what of WORLDNET. Having won the battle with global powers, it lost the battles with those political appointees brought in after President Reagan left office. Charlie Wick, the flamboyant Hollywood entertainment expert was replaced by Bruce Gelb, political appointee from Clairol and Bristol Myers Squibb, who not knowing the first thing about global broadcasting, re-jiggered the whole project and turned it into trash.
Then the turf war was lost to that HF relic of the Second World War, VOA. Jealous of a TV channel getting more exposure than the pedestrian VOA they used their might to swallow it up, thanks to amateur political leaders again.
Finally the remnants went to the worst place possible for what was left of a mortally wounded Worldnet. It was swallowed up with the Black Hole of the Department of State. What they have is an encrypted, secret misinformation network for internal State Department use. A great loss for the United States.
Today the US desperately needs a resource along the lines envisaged by the developers of WorldNet. The hundreds of millions of dollars given to the "K" Street upstart Lincoln Group inside the Beltway, to seed foreign media with disinformation, and bribe journalists to write glowing reports on the progress, (!!!) of the Bush War on Terrorism would develop a state of the art network that would reach billions. Some time in the future America will waken up and realize that the last leader of the Free World was President Reagan, and he had the right idea with WorldNet.
It's not too late to develop an effective replacement, but I doubt if the White House will call the people who know how to do it now, and did it then!
Thanks for the Memories:
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