Problems may ground international satellite TV from Luxembourg

A combination of political and commercial factors may scuttle Europe's most ambitious venture in direct broadcasting of television by satellite - several years before it is due to start.

Compagnie Luxembourgeoise de Telediffusion (CLT), based in Luxembourg, plans to beam programs from the tiny grand duchy in the center of Europe to rooftop aerials in West Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Yet the company is finding it difficult to convince its neighbors, particularly France, that the service would be in their best interests. CLT's shareholders, too, are not convinced that the venture would be profitable.

The saga in Luxembourg highlights the difficulties faced by countries that wish to operate direct-broadcast TV services across national boundaries. Unlike conventional TV services, which rely on short-range ground transmitters, TV beamed from space by satellite can be received over a very large area of hundreds of miles.

Problems arise when one country objects to the service that a neighboring nation plans or operates. Countries in the Soviet bloc and the third world say that such services could beam propaganda and so undermine the cultural values of nations on the receiving end of the TV blitz from outer space.

The communist countries and the developing world gained an important victory in November at a meeting of the political committee of the United Nations in New York. On a vote of 88 to 15, with 11 abstentions, the committee approved a document that says no nation shall establish a broadcast service except with the consent of receiving countries.

Many Western nations say such a right of veto by the receiving countries blocks the free flow of information and puts too much power into the hands of governments. The United States, in company with Britain, France, West Germany, Japan, Italy - and Luxembourg - voted against the document.

France's decision not to abstain must have been taken only after some soul-searching, for it is the country displaying the most anxiety about CLT's direct-broadcasting plans.

Officials in Francois Mitterrand's Socialist government are bitterly opposed to privately run TV, even if it were to emanate from their own country. They are even more vehement about plans to beam programs from another country over whose content they would have no control.

French government officials speak of threats to France's cultural identity from TV programs from outer space that, for example, include too much British or US material.

The hand of the French government is strengthened by its control over two of CLT's shareholders. Havas, France's state-owned advertising agency, owns 17 percent of the shares in CLT, and Paribas, a nationalized French bank, has 8 percent.

Mindful of France's displeasure, CLT asked the Luxembourg government to start talks with neighboring countries to find out their views. There are no signs from Luxembourg that these talks have reached any common ground.

As a result, the projected start of the service, which would broadcast in four channels, has slipped from 1985 to the end of 1987 at the earliest.

The intergovernmental discussions are taking place not only because tiny Luxembourg does not want to upset its near neighbors, but also because CLT has calculated how the larger countries could make life difficult for it, were the service to begin without their approval.

Although a neighboring government could do little to stop its citizens from tuning into the service with rooftop dishes, it could prohibit the service from beaming into cable networks feeding homes that do not have suitable aerials. An unfriendly government could also block the advertisements the service would need to make it profitable.

The political questions are making CLT's shareholders apprehensive. The company admits it is having problems raising the $400 million the satellite venture will cost. Officials at Havas in Paris, one of the principal shareholders, go further, saying bluntly they are pessimistic about whether the service will show a profit.

An important factor is France's own plans for a direct-broadcasting service. In 1985, the nation will launch a satellite that will beam the same programs as the country's (firmly state-controlled) terrestrial TV network. But France is talking about a second satellite, a year later, that would beam a new mixture of programs. These would still be under the auspices of the state broadcasting company.

West Germany also figures in the reckoning. If CLT's service goes ahead, some 70 percent of West Germany (a similar proportion to France) will be within its proposed ''footprint.'' This country, too, plans a direct broadcasting satellite in the mid-1980s but has yet to decide who will control it.

The only other country in Western Europe with firm plans for TV by satellite is Britain, where a private company called Unisat will start a service in 1986. Britain, however, falls outside the area of coverage of the Luxembourg satellite.

Nonetheless, with this plethora of planned satellite services, planners at CLT may be excused for thinking the population of Europe can take only so much television and that their venture might attract too few viewers to be a commercial success.

Of course, Western Europe could follow the American pattern where, unhindered by the need to win agreements between fretful governments, no fewer than seven companies have won approval to start direct broadcast TV services from the mid- 1980s.

Nevertheless, the Americas are not immune from political problems arising from direct broadcasting.

Canada recently launched an Anik satellite powerful enough for direct broadcasting but it is still deliberating over whether to sanction the start of a full service. The government fears viewers could be overwhelmed with a rash of unseemly material beamed from across the border in the United States.

Brazil is also unwilling to move into direct broadcasting because it fears ''propaganda'' from abroad.

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