92. Action Memorandum From the Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs (Buffum), the Director of the Policy Planning Staff (Lord), and the Deputy Legal Adviser (Maw) to the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Sisco)1 2

Principles Concerning Direct Broadcast Satellites

On March 11, the UN Working Group on Direct Broadcast Satellites meets in Geneva under instructions from the General Assembly to develop recommendations on principles for direct television broadcasting by satellite. A decision is needed concerning whether to authorize the U.S. Delegation to present the non-binding draft principles which are attached.

The UN’s focus on this matter reflects concern that technological advances will enable one country to broadcast television programs directly into homes in another without regard to the cultural, social, political, or economic impact of such broadcasts.

In April, NASA will launch an experimental satellite designed to reach “community antennas.” These will be sufficiently compact to be located in small villages or towns and to be used in schools, community centers, and cable television distribution systems. The NASA satellite will be used experimentally in the U.S. and will subsequently be made available to India.

The Japanese are working with General Electric on a similar system for experimental domestic use in Japan.

Later in the decade, it may be feasible to broadcast into specially equipped television sets augmented by antennas small enough to be located at individual residences.

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Some countries—not all—believe the “direct broadcast satellite” problem begins with community antenna systems. In any case most countries perceive an inevitable technological trend. Technical and economic arguments that this trend will not in fact materialize rapidly have not proved persuasive.

Proposals have been advanced (in particular by the Soviet Union, Sweden, and Canada) which would open the way for an absolute power of veto by a receiving country or for prior censorship of programs.

If no affirmative proposals are tabled in the UN, the drafting of principles beginning next week will be based solely on such restrictive approaches. Therefore, while the technological problem is not yet really upon us, the political problem clearly is.

Our position would be considerably strengthened by offering the principles attached. These would inject into the discussions for the first time a specific approach having nothing to do with censorship. This would ensure a wider basis for further discussions and at least for the time being avoid acceleration of the trend toward highly restrictive regimes. We would, in effect, be shifting from a position of simply opposing ideas we do not like to an affirmative posture from which we could more effectively advocate ideas in which we believe.

The draft principles would identify existing relevant international agreements and understandings and stress cooperative—not regulatory— aspects. The Delegation would be instructed not to accept more extreme proposals. Any move in that direction could arouse sharp domestic reaction and lead to charges by the media that the U.S. was “caving in” to international pressures at the expense of domestic liberties. Such a reaction would be particularly unfortunate at a time of intensive debate over detente with the Soviet Union and its relationship to the Soviet domestic system.

The substance of the draft principles is acceptable to all interested agencies, including USIA, NASA, AID, HEW, and the staff of OTP (Office of Telecommunications Policy, Executive Office of the President) and the FCC. Except for Tom Whitehead, Director of OTP, there is broad agreement that tabling the proposals would be a highly advisable tactical move.

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Mr. Whitehead believes we should continue to oppose United Nations efforts to formulate any principles. He fears that even entering such discussions would be the first step by the U.S. down a “slippery slope” toward a binding agreement we could not accept. He is also concerned about the possibility of some adverse domestic reaction. However, he does not feel that OTP should attempt to veto a judgment made on foreign policy grounds.

We do not believe the “slippery slope” fear is justified, because our proposal is expressly directed toward acceptable non-binding principles and our delegation is clearly instructed not to deviate from this goal. We would, of course, wish to head off any adverse domestic misapprehension by promptly acquainting the major broadcasting networks with the purpose and limits of this initiative, thus maintaining a series of contacts on this subject.

Although this Working Group is the present focal point of UN attention to direct broadcasting, other UN bodies will be devoting significant time to reviewing the Working Group’s report and recommendations in the near future. In May the Outer Space Legal Subcommittee will have direct broadcasting on its agenda, as a high priority item, and we can expect attempts in the General Assembly to deal definitively with the question possibly as early as this fall, although probably not until 1975. We will be returning for periodic reviews of our negotiating instructions as these developments occur. We believe, however, that to protect ourselves in these successive negotiations we must promptly take the initiative suggested in the attachment.


That you authorize the U.S. Delegation to the United Nations Working Group on Direct Broadcast Satellites to table the draft principles attached.

Approve [JS initialed]
Disapprove _____________

  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 59, L/OA Files, Lot 99 D 369, Box 11, Space—Direct Broadcast Satellites (DBS), 1973–1975. Limited Official Use. Drafted by Gathright, Stowe, and Black. Concurred in by CU and EB. Sisco initialed his approval on March 9. The attachment has not been published. The Draft Principles on Direct Broadcast Satellites, circulated by the U.S. delegation on March 12, are published in UN document A/AC.105/127, Annex IV.
  2. The memorandum recommended submitting to the UN Working Group on Direct Broadcast Satellites a draft of principles acceptable to the United States.