LEADERS in Asia, who mostly try to filter foreign information their people receive, are braced for an ominous shower of uninvited television signals from satellites set to be launched in the next few years.
The "borderless television" that threatens the commercial and political interests of many Asian nations has even aroused Japan, a relatively open society that is nonetheless wary of an invasion of its airwaves from outer space.
"A new type of nationalism is forming against this intrusion," says Takaaki Hattori, a communications professor at Tokyo's Rikkyo University.
"Direct satellite broadcasting is like the Black Ships all over again - something unknown and uncertain from abroad," he says, referring to the arrival in Japan of United States ships under Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 that put an end to Japan's long isolation.
Japan's anxiety over direct broadcasting to its citizens from satellites outside its control was sparked last year when thousands of Japanese started to buy special receiver "dishes" to pick up the new STAR TV network, which carries BBC news, Hollywood films, and other programming.
This Hong Kong-based television network relies on a powerful signal on the AsiaSat satellite, whose "footprint" stretches from Istanbul to Vladivostok.
The owner, HutchVision Group, offers programs unscrambled and for free in hopes of attracting advertisers who want to reach the half of humanity that lives in Asia. Indonesia, too, has beamed out television signals since 1983 from its Palapa satellite, whose supranational audience extends from Australia to Tibet.
Even in remote villages of northern Thailand with no regular electricity, people now have Frisbee-sized dishes to pick up STAR TV, says Jerry Fisher, general manager in Asia for Hubbard Broadcasting of Minneapolis.
On one recent trip he found a Thai village of 119 households where 25 families had televisions, run by small electric generators, that were hooked up to satellite dishes. As an example of the social impact, the village chief complained that his five wives were so obsessed with watching satellite programs that he only had two children last year.
But more satellites are due to be launched soon that are more powerful, more focused, and with more channels, thanks to advances in the compression of digital signals and ever-cheaper satellites and launch vehicles. Of the 120 satellites planned for launch in the coming decade, about half will orbit over Asia. Entering the `global village'
Locked in geostationary orbits, the satellites will help bring Asia's tradition-bound societies into a "global village," bypassing the telecommunication monopolies and bureaucracies that keep a close grip on television in many countries.
But they also will touch off a sky-high clash over who rules the region's airwaves. How each government responds will likely depend on how much the satellite programs are seen as a threat.
Foreign news broadcasts into nations with controlled media often put events into different political context, puncture long-held myths, or step on ethnic or religious sensitivities.
China, for instance, cut off CNN's uplink during the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident to stop images of the massacre from being beamed back to the Chinese people. Orthodox Muslim nations in Central Asia are worried about the "spillover" of satellite broadcasts from Turkey, a more-modern Muslim nation.
Singapore and Malaysia have tried to regulate ownership of satellite dishes, which is proving more difficult now that newer versions can work indoors. In Taiwan and India, entrepreneurs are pirating satellite signals and selling them through neighborhood cable systems.
Within the next few months, Japan's Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications hopes to draw up regulations to somehow control the reception, recording, and broadcasting of overseas satellite TV programs.
"Visual broadcasts are more powerful in influencing people than shortwave radio," Dr. Hattori says. "The ministry worries that such broadcasts will be outside their control."
Ministry officials say the spillover of satellite signals is "undesirable" and that Japanese businesses that capitalize on such cross-border transmissions will be regulated, like illegal taxis.
Ironically, Japan itself was accused by South Korea last year of "cultural invasion" after broadcasts from a new Japanese satellite became popular among Koreans. The spillover was a reminder of Japan's occupation of Korea from 1910-45 when it tried to wipe out Korean culture. Even after Japan agreed to reduce the signal's width, the broadcasts - in Japanese - can still be picked up by many South Korea dishes.
In apparent defense, South Korea plans to put up its own satellite by 1995, which might cause problems for Japan if provocative programs about Japan's wartime past are beamed to the 600,000 Koreans in Japan and to 123 million Japanese.
"It would be like a dynamite," says Hattori, "It could start an explosion." War of cultures
Rather than stop the broadcasts, some Asian nations are trying to produce programming attractive enough to keep the attention of domestic audiences.
"It's going to be a cultural war," Dr. Fisher says.
In Japan, the semi-governmental NHK television network is trying to beef up its international appeal. "We are thinking what kind of broadcast to provide in the future for overseas audiences," a spokesman says. "But we are handicapped by having to use Japanese while most people in Asia are learning English. It's difficult for us to go abroad."
Much of the satellite programming in Asia will be "made in the US," Hattori says. "Borderless broadcasting was supposed to bring the world closer. Instead, it's really just increasing our dependence on American video culture."