Our World: uniting the planet via satellite
Fifty years ago, the pioneering global multi-national/multi-satellite TV show ‘Our World’ engineered a major step toward globalised communications – and also brought forth The Beatles’ Summer of Love anthem.
By the early summer of 1967, less than a decade after Sputnik 1 became the first human-made object to orbit the Earth, electronic communications satellites had already demonstrated their potential as enablers of abstracted global unification. The scope to extend this capability seemed then as expansive as space itself, and each new addition to the satellite constellation inspired terrestrial broadcasters towards new technological possibilities.
For television, satellites primarily promised scope for event coverage and audience aggregation, but more perspicacious individuals working in the medium felt that satellites offered what today would be called ‘transformative’ opportunities for television to deliver globally-unifying viewing experiences, and to facilitate cultural exchange on a worldwide scale.
The ‘Our World’ television programme of Sunday 25 June 1967 was conceived and organised to demonstrate both what the latest advanced communications technology was able to deliver, and how, working together, satellite and television could – at least for a couple of hours – focus a communal awareness in which, in the intellectualised terms described by media theorist Marshall McLuhan, ‘the globe... contracted into a village by electric technology, and the instantaneous movement of information from every quarter to every point at the same time’.
The ‘global village’ hypothesised by McLuhan became more feasible after multiple satellites broadened coverage of the planet’s surface, which became the case in the spring of 1967. As a senior media executive, BBC Television’s head of science and features Aubrey Singer (1927-2007), whose idea ‘Our World’ was, would probably have been familiar with McLuhan’s ideas – indeed, McLuhan was later to be interviewed on the programme itself. Singer’s basic proposal was for a live 150-minute programme that multiple countries around the world would contribute segments to, switching from country to country, each contribution being transmitted from local cameras to the rest of the worldwide viewing audience via the new satellites and their respective ground stations.
‘Live by satellite’ link-ups between continents had already been demonstrated to TV audiences, but ‘Our World’’s premise upscaled this significantly by involving four in-orbit devices to relay the entire broadcast in real-time to the 14 participating countries: Austria, Denmark, France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom and West Germany in Europe; Tunisia in North Africa; Canada, the United States and Mexico in the Americas; and Australia and Japan in the Far East. A television station in each country took responsibility for its own content production, transmitting its contribution to the nearest ground station for relay to its assigned satellite. ‘Our World’ was also shown live in Belgium, Bulgaria, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Switzerland; an estimated 400-700 million people viewed proceedings as they unfolded.
Outside of the hosted continuity content that explained the logistical principles on which the programme’s delivery was based, ‘Our World’’s contents were directed to inform and entertain, and resulted in a compendium of items intended to convey something of each country’s national culture or topography, mainly via outside-broadcast cameras. It included visits to maternity hospitals, a public tram station, cattle ranches and prestigious motorways. Other items featured big-name artists and performers such as Picasso and Maria Callas, and most famously The Beatles, who, representing the UK’s contribution, closed the proceedings from Abbey Road Studios with their song-in-progress ‘All You Need Is Love’, which became an anthem of the Summer of Love.
Three of the satellites used for ‘Our World’ were run by Intelsat, which in 1967 was an intergovernmental consortium that owned and managed a constellation of geostationary communications orbiters providing international broadcast services, and operated by Comsat, then a quasi-governmental agency. The pioneering Intelsat I F-1 (nicknamed ‘Early Bird’) had already been in operation for more than two years; but Intelsat II F-2 (‘Lani Bird’) and Intelsat II F-3 (‘Canary Bird’) had only gone into orbit earlier that year. All three were engineered for Intelsat by Hughes Aircraft, and shared similar attributes with respect to their orbital parameters.
The fourth ‘Our World’ satellite was the Nasa-operated ATS-1 Applications Technology Satellite, launched in December 1966. This was a larger unit capable of performing a broader range of functions. It did not interoperate with the Intelsat satellites, which themselves relied on ground stations to relay signals. ATS-1 was the first satellite to use frequency division multiple access (FDMA), which meant that it could take multiple uplinked signals and convert them for downlink on a single carrier. It was also equipped with a weather camera, which transmitted the first Earth meteorological images from geostationary altitudes (36,000km above the surface).
All four satellites were the most advanced technology of the time, and it says much for the BBC’s – and maybe the Beatles’ – pulling power that it could persuade their owner-operators to put resources behind the undertaking. The ‘Our World’ project also presented a huge proof-of-concept opportunity: working with so many television companies around the world was an ideal opportunity for Intelsat and Comsat to demonstrate capability for engagements in future projects. ‘Our World’’s transmission was, by available accounts, problem-free, and Intelsat went on to provide global satellite communications for the 1968 Mexico Olympics and the 1970 World Cup – also from Mexico.
“The ‘Our World’ project was Intelsat’s first global TV broadcast on a grand scale,” says the company’s commercial planning and strategic sourcing manager, Brian Duffey. “There was a significant learning curve because Early Bird, for instance, could only transmit two television channels – from the Americas to Europe and from Europe to the Americas. For Early Bird at least, there were no other transmissions that could be handled in the America to Europe direction if a TV channel was being broadcast; the other two satellites may have had slightly more carrying capacity than Early Bird.
“No communications operator had coordinated a broadcast using multiple satellites,” he says. “This was an order of magnitude greater in terms of sophistication, considering there were [so many] countries and approximately 45 control rooms working together to broadcast the event. The coordination of the services between multiple locations and transferring content from the satellites to the control centres had all been done before – but never simultaneously or with such complexity.”
The project overall called upon the inputs of some 10,000 technicians. Although the proposal for ‘Our World’ came from the BBC, it deferred development of the idea to the European Broadcasting Union. In the event, the master control defaulted back to BBC facilities in London.
“The programme was a pioneering exercise in global broadcasting and demonstrated that the massive organisational challenges of televising the Olympics, for example, and the World Cup around the globe was possible,” says Science Museum deputy keeper of technologies and engineering Doug Millard. “Both of those sporting tournaments grew as they have done on the back of the technologies demonstrated so successfully by ‘Our World’. And there’s no question that the millions who watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in 1969 owed that privilege to the other spacecraft involved in that mission: the Earth-orbiting communications satellites that relayed the incoming signals to TV screens around the world.”
In consideration of these achievements, it could be argued that ‘Our World’ has not been accorded the recognition it deserves. One reason for this could be that it transmitted in black-and-white, not long before incoming colour standards consigned many monochrome recordings to archival oblivion.
“The innovative nature of ‘Our World’ was eclipsed by the rapid incorporation into everyday broadcasting of the technologies it had so recently demonstrated,” says Millard. “Soon after, with ever more and increasingly powerful communications satellites being launched into orbit, ‘live by satellite’ became a regular suffix to news bulletins. Colour television followed soon after, and this further eroded the memory of ‘Our World’.”
It is unclear if a complete recording of the entire ‘Our World’ programme exists, and if it does, what format and condition it has been preserved in. Various segments can be viewed on YouTube and elsewhere, their sources unacknowledged. However, it is possible that one of the 14 participating broadcasters made and preserved recordings of their own contribution, or whole parts of the show.
The BBC appears to have retained only a telerecording of the show, although a videotape recording of The Beatles’ segment was sourced by the producers of the 1995 ‘Beatles Anthology’ documentary series. Because this sequence was colourised, there has been speculation that the BBC had tried out its new 625-line PAL colour system for this event – colour broadcasting on BBC2 launched six days after ‘Our World’, on 1 July 1967, even if the signal it then fed out to the world was in black-and-white – but no evidence to confirm this has yet been found.
“‘Our World’ was transmitted using analogue broadcast technology,” says Duffey. “Today, we are fully digital and our transmissions are increasingly IP-based. It’s remarkable to think of how far we’ve come: Early Bird only carried two television channels. Today, our satellites carry over 5,000 channels for broadcasters all around the world.”