The Archaeology of Satellite Television in Switzerland, 1957-1984

Marie Sandoz University of Lausanne

The Archaeology of Satellite Television in Switzerland, 1957-1984

The collective research project “Beyond Public Service: Towards an Expanded History of Television in Switzerland, 1960 to 2000” is financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation and lead at the University of Lausanne by Prof. François Vallotton and Dr.  Anne-Katrin Weber. It aims specifically to embrace the plurality of televisual practices, techniques and actors before the digital era. To do so, it’s conceived around three strands that respectively concern the history of audiovisual professions, the analysis of discourses on and about television, and the study of the media’s technological developments. Adopting a cultural history perspective, my dissertation examines this last strand through an examination of the beginnings of satellite television in Switzerland.

In line with the scholarships developing in the field of Media archaeology and New media studies, the goal is to write the archaeology of the Swiss satellite television by considering its emergence from a longue durée perspective. Mobilizing, among others, the methodological and theoretical notion of “dispositive”, as elaborated by Profs. Maria Tortajada and François Albera, this research aims to analyze distinctive forms of satellite television, forms that can be tangible realizations as well as discursive constructions. The main hypothesis of this research is twofold: first, a unique definition of satellite television doesn’t exist; second, the media’s signification is constructed by its conditions of existence, understood as the combination of the media’s technical, representational and reception-related elements, and its inscription in a cultural, political, economic and social time and space.

My study focuses on the years following the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957 and preceding the effective realization of a Swiss satellite television, which takes the form of a francophone international public channel in 1984 with the creation of TV5, a cooperation of public broadcasters from France, Belgium, Switzerland and since 1986 Canada. Following a genealogical approach, we could easily have gone back to the 19th century; the imaginary of spatial communication is indeed way older than its material realization. The choice of 1957 matches, thus, our ambition to consider imaginary objects in relation to similar existing technological achievements, and vice-versa.

The almost thirty years separating 1957 from 1984 are characterized by important technological evolutions and a plurality of debates that gradually lead to a dominant model of satellite television in the 1990s. According to the global media sociologist Jean K. Chalaby, from the mid-1990s on, the European satellite television industry has matured and stabilized after a difficult start. This consolidation is due to more powerful technologies, a channels’ multiplication, but also to a better understanding of the European public’s cultural diversity, which leads the producers to tailor the programs accordingly.

This research is thus interested in the formative years of this “new media” with the period’s interest lying in its instability. The media definition and uses are indeed not yet fixed and this uncertainty is conducive to a profusion of projects, artefacts and debates of many kinds, reflecting the utopian and dystopian effects new media technologies can produce in different social, professional and political circles. In order to account for this plurality and to examine the potential crossroads linking heterogeneous arenas, we will study different actors and places discussing the television satellite technology, such as mass media (the press, public radio and television), the field of space research, the national Postal services, the Parliament, and some international organizations physically present in Switzerland, such as the International Telecommunications Union in Geneva. It should be noted, however, that the media television was well institutionalized when satellite technologies emerged. Thus, we will pay careful attention to the ways this new form of television interacts with a cultural and economic system in place.

Furthermore, an important part of the research considers the role new media technologies, in particular satellite television, take in the liberalization and the transnationalization of the Swiss audiovisual landscape during the studied years. Satellite television has indeed a complex relationship with national borders, since it deterritorializes the contents. The issue of cross-border media is however not new in the history of telecommunications and Switzerland’s history of broadcasting has been transnational from very early on. Surrounded by big neighbors, the small country is traditionally an importer of radio and television programs, via airways and cable. But the question is posed with particular acuity in the context of liberalization of European public televisions in the 1980s, with notably satellite technologies crystallizing expansion hopes as well as fears of loss of national control.

The year 1984 is especially relevant to consider the linkages between new cross border media technologies and Swiss media landscapes’ liberalization. Tt’s indeed that same year that the Swiss public broadcaster Société Suisse de Radiodiffusion takes part in TV5 and that the abolishment of the audiovisual state monopoly is implemented. These two events are preceded with heated and interrelated debates. In 1980, a newly created enterprise, lead mainly by newspaper publishers, requests a concession to launch the first Swiss satellite television. The prospect to give this possibility to a private group animates the following discussions in various political and professional arenas. The arguments intertwine with debates lead in the Parliament on the television public monopoly, and the future of Swiss media landscape in general.

Finally, this study will pay careful attention to the specific imaginary that surrounds not only the actors and spaces directly involved in satellite television material development and discursive definition, but also the Swiss general public. To examine how the “European astroculture” is expressed in Switzerland – borrowing the term from the historian Alexander C. T. Geppert – press  articles and drawings, scientific popularization magazines, exhibitions material and science-fiction writings and films will be mobilized. This approach will allow to inscribe satellite television representations in Switzerland into a set of western spatial images with major political implications, such as imperialism and liberal globalization in the context of the cold war.

To conclude, by enmeshing a technical and economic history of satellite television with a broader perspective on its social and cultural construction in the space age, this dissertation brings together seemingly very different aspects of satellite television in Switzerland.

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