Satellites bring the world into the living room

Published

In 1967, the BBC's Our World television programme used satellites to broadcast live images to millions of viewers around the globe.

All over the floor sat assorted representatives of the flower power generation, including Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull and Eric Clapton, dressed in rainbow colours and holding placards proclaiming peace and love. Above the crowd at EMI's Abbey Road studios on 25 June 1967, seated on high stools, were the members of Britain's global pop sensation, the Beatles.

However, this was no sit-in to protest the Vietnam War, then at its height. The mop-tops from Liverpool were preparing to give the first public performance of 'All You Need is Love', subsequently a hit single on both sides of the Atlantic. 

The song had been commissioned by the BBC to represent Britain in the first ever simultaneous, worldwide, live broadcast.

Science fiction becomes reality

A replica of the Telstar I communications satellite (1962)

A replica of the Telstar I communications satellite (1962)

As early as 1945, the science fiction author and wartime radio operator Arthur C Clarke had predicted that three evenly-spaced satellite relay stations in orbit above the Earth would be enough to send and receive signals, including television pictures, anywhere in the world. 

In 1962 a single satellite, Telstar, had relayed television signals across the Atlantic (and inspired another hit single, by the Tornadoes). Though Telstar was a sphere less than a metre in diameter, sharp-eyed observers might track its progress across the night sky, winking back the rays of the sun like a super-fast planet.

An international consortium including Britain, France, the US and other states launched Intelsat I, ATS-1 and several versions of Intelsat-II between 1965 and 1967. Unlike Telstar, these satellites sat in geostationary orbit, each above a fixed point on the Earth's surface. As Clarke had predicted, this made global broadcasting possible for the first time.

Politics trumps technology

Bound copy of the script for the Our World broadcast with technical notes, produced by the BBC (1967).

Bound copy of the script for the Our World broadcast with technical notes, produced by the BBC (1967).

Aubrey Singer, Head of Science and Features at BBC Television, immediately saw an opportunity to bring the world closer together through a unique co-production. Our World would involve live feeds from 14 different countries (originally 19), received in 24 countries. Officially under the auspices of the European Broadcasting Union, it was coordinated from the BBC's studios in London.

In a gesture that was itself political, the international group of programme-makers decided that no politicians or heads of state would appear. Instead, all the broadcasting countries would contribute segments on science and culture, and reflect the activity of ordinary citizens. 

Unfortunately, politics intervened when the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries pulled out the week before transmission, in a protest over the Six Day War in the Middle East. It was a very great disappointment to Singer and his colleagues, whose goal was to broadcast to the whole world.

The world in your living room

Five chapters, under a unifying theme of world population, included 'The Hungry World', 'The Crowded World', and 'The Worlds Beyond'. Italy contributed footage of the film director Franco Zeffirelli shooting Romeo and Juliet; the US offered the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein rehearsing in New York. The Greek opera singer Maria Callas and the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso also made appearances, while Australia offered insights into space from its radio telescope near Canberra.

Aubrey Singer turned instead to Britain's 'swinging 60s' brand of popular culture, choosing the Beatles for their global appeal. He commissioned them to write a song with a simple, universally understood message. John Lennon wrote 'All You Need Is Love' in about three weeks, and the group rehearsed it and laid down backing tracks in the days before the live broadcast on 25 June 1967.

The broadcaster Cliff Michelmore's introduction, transmitted to UK audiences before the programme itself, included a sequence of satellite images of the Earth from space. For many viewers, this would have been their first opportunity to see photographs of 'our world' in its entirety. Two years later, on 20 July 1969, the world gathered round its TV sets again to see an even more extraordinary technical achievement: live pictures of the first moon landing.


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