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During the 1970s and 1980s, West Virginians erected thousands of satellite dishes to receive broadcast signals for residential television viewing. Early models measured several feet in diameter, quite large compared to today’s small satellite dishes. As their popularity increased satellite dishes became a major landscape feature, prompting jokes that they had replaced the rhododendron as West Virginia’s ‘‘state flower.’’

Satellite dishes became popular in rural places with rugged topography, like West Virginia, for good reasons. Roof-top antennas worked poorly because hilly terrain interfered with reception. Rural dwellers were faced with the unsatisfactory option of having to run lines to antennas on distant hilltops.

While cable TV flourished in cities, the low population densities characteristic of rural West Virginia made it uneconomical to run miles of cable to serve relatively few customers. Instead, rural residents looked to the sky. Consumers purchased their own satellite dishes from growing numbers of small businesses that sold and installed them. These dishes captured C-band transmissions, which were unencrypted at the time. Families rationalized the high costs of early dishes because they paid nothing for the programming they received.

After broadcasters began encrypting their satellite signals, the programming was available only through illegal decoding boxes. As technology and the law evolved, the old satellite dishes became useless and began to disappear from the landscape by the last years of the 20th century. The infrastructure of businesses selling and servicing satellite dishes disappeared, as well.

Modern satellite television works like any other utility service, with monthly payments required. Households subscribe to systems that include a satellite TV dish antenna, integrated receiver-decoder box, and remote control, for a fee comparable to cable service. The much smaller satellite dishes are permissible in cities and towns that once banned the large dishes, so satellite television is no longer just a rural phenomenon. Urban residents now choose between cable and satellite service. Satellite TV companies now also provide some local channels, a feature missing in the past. The new satellite dishes are tiny by comparison to their predecessors, pervasive but inconspicuous features of the rural countryside and city and suburban neighborhoods.

This Article was written by Lizbeth Pyle

Last Revised on October 29, 2010

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Cite This Article

Pyle, Lizbeth "Satellite Television." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 29 October 2010. Web. 23 November 2014.

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