American Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) Initiates Worldwide Satellite Delivery

LTC (Ret) G A Redding 

AFRTS programs were, and still are, considered a Quality of Life issue impacting servicemember morale and welfare, including family members, especially in remote areas or “hardship” tours. Providing news, entertainment, and sports programming has always been an AFRTS prime mission – a touch of home.  Satellite delivery ultimately was able to provide real time programming in lieu of shipping thousands of VHS cassettes overseas and taking weeks if not months to complete a circuit.  After an outlet aired a program it would send the videotape to another station by mail, and finally back to AFRTS Los Angeles for reprocessing.  With satellite delivery all that went away.  

In October 1978, coverage of Superbowl XIII for American Armed Forces OCONUS locations became an issue.  Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) Director, Robert Cranston, received an ominous call from his Sports Director, George Balamaci.  AT&T had just notified Balamaci that satellite transponder time for the Superbowl XIII had been reserved by an undisclosed party and not available for AFRTS.  At that time AT&T held the appropriate/exclusive contracts with the Defense Department.  For sports and other special events AFRTS would secure commercial satellite broadcast services on an as needed or ad hoc basis.  For example, as little as 15 minutes of satellite reserve time could be secured from AT&T with a personal or business credit card.  Businesses or entities with reserved time would then offer to release the satellite transponder space segment to AFRTS for appropriate financial compensation – a.k.a scalping.  With this, and increasing satellite use, AFRTS leadership decided to move to full-time satellite distribution.  

Future Systems, Inc. (FSI), Gaithersburg, MD, was contracted by AFRTS to evaluate engineering and cost requirements for designing a “worldwide satellite TV distribution statement of work (SOW)”.  

Defensible budget justifications for establishing and funding the proposed AFRTS Satellite Network (SATNET) were required to support programming issues like the Super Bowl and increase the AFIS budget from $18M to over $38M and $98M in the outyears, including staffing requirements. 

The HAC was interested in why AFRTS didn’t use existing (underutilized) military satellite facilities.  Our response was simple enough.  Should something happen in a tactical environment where additional capacity was needed, AFRTS with a “00” priority would be kicked off the transponder, along with all other military networks.  Losing AFRTS broadcasts “might be understood” by its authorized audience, but unofficially AFRTS had an overseas shadow audience that included millions of viewers.  That international shadow audience would be very concerned should AFRTS programming for U.S. Forces go unexpectedly dark.  That argument / position satisfied the HAC and we proceeded. 

Implementing the AFRTS SATNET meant consolidating resources.  All personnel and administrative activities pursuant to the AFRTS-Washington closure and the AFRTS-Los Angeles’ consolidation into new facilities (e.g., the new AFRTS-Broadcast Center) were executed per the satellite proposal.  This involved reclassifying and staffing over 170 positions, both military and civilian. I was directed to: 

•        Ascertaining incremental costs for support of AFRT outlets, per station, circuit, and type of programming.  

•        Validating data required to making continuing program commitments with respect to decremented, basic, and enhanced funding authorizations. 

•        Consolidating the AFRTS organization at Los Angeles based on manpower (work) requirements, potential realignment based on new missions associated with the AFRTS SATNET, and the AFRTS Operations Plan 1-79. 

•        Reviewing all procedures for contracting, procurement and budget submissions:  program and equipment costs, personnel, training and travel costs, and maintenance and administrative costs.  

Once new staffing plans were published incumbents at AFRTS-Washington were offered positions at the new satellite-enabled AFRTS-Broadcast Center (BC) facilities in Sun Valley, California.  None accepted.  

With full-time satellite availability looming, the challenge was to secure programming.  AFIS approached the newly launched, June 1980, Cable News Network (CNN) to work out a formal relationship.  CNN had programs, and a CONUS satellite network.  AFRTS would be standing up a worldwide network but needed program.  Synergy!  Meetings to sort out a mutually beneficial deal were conducted between AFRTS and CNN.  As a result, AFRTS overseas downlinks would be fed CNN programming from AFRTS-BC.  That signal would be retransmitted (flipped) by U.S. Electrodynamics, Inc. through its antenna farms on the West and East coasts of the United States.  

Note:  It was believed that AFRTS signals, pirated and retransmitted, into local economies such as hotels provided CNN HQs with enough justification to confirm an overseas audience.  This was born out.  CNN International was launched at a later date.     The history on CNN’s website does not mention this AFRTS and CNN collaboration.  A “low key” memorandum of agreement was negotiated through AFRTS-LA.  As AFRTS SATNET programing expanded, there were increased opportunities to provide sports programs live.  News programs from the major networks – CBS, NBC, and ABC – were also transmitted under the condition that they would be broadcast in their entirety (even if some of the segments might not favor U.S. interests).  

Impact – BIG DEAL! – The AFRTS SATNET was the first global/international Superstation implementation, a feat that had never before been accomplished.  This was also the first time any organization, government or commercial, had asked for full time access to satellite transponders for news and entertainment programming.  

G A Redding, LTC, US Army, Retired

Combat Photographer  
Public Information Officer  
Visual Information Pioneer

Mr. Redding has over 50 years experience in public affairs and broadcasting, in and outside the government of the United States. In 1985 he joined the Secretary of Defense’s Audiovisual Policy Office, developing policy to manage DoD audiovisual resources, including multimedia technologies; videodisc-based training systems, CD-ROM applications, and teleconferencing networks. 

Upon retiring from the U.S. Army, he joined the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Initiative as a core team member.  In that capacity he evaluated instructional technologies – policies, products, services, devices, and networks – as they apply to multiple education and training environments. The ADL Initiative encompasses content issues, economic models, technical architectures, and research priorities including Pre-K – 12, technical schools, colleges and universities, job skills training, professional development, and life-long learning.  He holds a Bachelors degree in Mass Communications from the University of Denver, a Masters degree in Business Administration from Indiana State University, and a Masters degree in Broadcasting from Butler University. He was inducted to the Defense Information School Hall of Fame in 2021.

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