There’s an interesting history behind satellite dishes and satellite broadcasting in the early 1990s. Some broadcasters intentionally scrambled their signals to prevent unauthorized reception by viewers who didn’t pay to receive them. Others, though, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the explosion of satellite dish use across the former Eastern Bloc, saw a great opportunity to reach a new audience. Whether or not they’d admit it today, Nickelodeon was one of the opportunistic broadcasters.
Viacom, Nickelodeon’s parent company, committed millions of dollars to research and develop better broadcasting technologies to saturate the new markets with children’s programming, hoping those kids would grow up and have a subconscious loyalty to the Nickelodeon brand and various programs. What this meant was the launch of new, highly experimental satellites and ground-based satellite dishes.
The hardware deployment was completed in December of 1991 – two weeks before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In September of 1992, the first and only broadcast using the new technology was conducted. On October 9th, 1992, the new broadcasting technology was made illegal in the United States.
I was a Viacom engineer working for Nickelodeon in September of 1992. I was excited about the new satellite capabilities – just like any tech nerd would’ve been. I remember the first time our crew read the signal power specifications and the range of EM bands the technology would exploit. Bill Jaynes, the guy working with me at the time, remarked, “what the f**k is this, Star Trek?” I didn’t even laugh – I just said something like, “yeah, seriously.” The stuff we’d be using seemed decades ahead of anything we’d ever seen.
Of course, like any technology, there were a lot of bugs to work out. Test receivers on Viacom-chartered ships thousands of miles out at sea were getting burned out by the signals coming down from the new satellite. To make matters worse, if the signal did make it to the receivers without damaging them, the video quality was poor. Blurring, static, and dropped frames interlaced with noise plagued the testing period before we could get a handle on them. Still, the picture wasn’t as good as we’d hoped. New cameras using some bizarre optical trick seemed to help get the test pattern to appear much more clearly, though. Not perfect, but good enough.
Once we received the new cameras, Engineering Central over at Viacom’s technology headquarters gave my crew at Nickelodeon Studios the go-ahead to start broadcasting with the new tech on September 22, 1992. It was going to be of a live, unedited taping of Double Dare. The Viacom brass figured a live taping was as good as a pre-recorded one; new viewers in Eastern Europe and Russia would get a chance to see Marc Summers’ personality and other behind-the-scenes things that marketing research claimed they’d be interested in.
We began the broadcast at 11:00am Pacific Time. Things were going well. There were a lot of dropped frames early on, but things smoothed out. Interestingly, one of Viacom’s sources in Bulgaria and one in Latvia said not only were there no reports of burned out dishes, but the signal strength was so high it bled into neighboring EM bands, forcing the Double Dare broadcast onto multiple channels on either side of the main one. At the start of the broadcast, it was estimated 60% of people with satellite dishes in Eastern Europe and Russia were tuned into Double Dare.
The show was nearing its end and the winner was announced. Now, this particular iteration of the show was Family Double Dare, so Marc Summers, the mother, the father, and their two sons were waiting for the prize to be unveiled. I knew it was going to be a car. It was always a car.
The studio lights dimmed, and the moment the car was unveiled, the multicolored strobe light effect was turned on. There was a flash of heat, a brief scream from one of the family members, and Marc Summers was standing alone next to the car. In the headphones, I heard panicked shouting from Engineering Central. There were lots of voices and a ton of background noise, but one clear voice came through, “TURN IT OFF!”
I had the crew kill the cameras and I cut the broadcast feed. Marc Summers looked at me and my crew, turned around, and headed toward his dressing room.
Lots of things happened at Viacom and Nickelodeon after that. Reports began trickling in from Eastern Europe about a devastating and inexplicable accident involving people with “illegal” satellite dish connections. Corporate circulated an internal briefing. I wasn’t supposed to see it, but I knew a guy over there who shared it with me. The report included photographs. 20 years of therapy have done little to erase what those pictures contained.
The moment the lights strobed, they triggered something in the the experimental optics in the cameras. Whatever that something was, the organic matter in front of the cameras flashed out of that point in space. We’ve never been able to figure out why or how it happened. Nor were we able to figure out why the four family members reappeared in each and every location the broadcast was received. Four people, copied tens of thousands of times, were beamed across the world.
But the worst part was how they came out. Once the family signal reached the dishes and came through the televisions connected to them, the merged with every single living thing that had their eyes focused on the screen; one cluster of four family members occupying the space of each viewer’s eye.
Those were the photographs I saw. And there were hundreds of them. Not just in Eastern Europe, either – but friends of mine from the control rooms at Viacom and Nickelodeon.
Viacom spent billions of dollars to keep this quiet. The Eastern European governments, desperate for cash to aid in their independence, agreed to bury the incident after receiving cargo planes full of cash. All the Viacom and Nickelodeon employees who witnessed or were associated with victims received large settlements to shut them up. We then had to sign something promising we’d never talk.
I signed it.
The thing is, I’m not going to be around much longer. Cancer’s got me pretty good. Viacom will come after me, but I’ve got nothing they can take away that hasn’t already been claimed by what’s eating me away. But I’m not telling you this because of what happened in 1992. What’s done is done – there’s nothing that can change it.
Here’s why I’m telling you this; it’s the one thing that’s been bothering me all these years: Marc Summers.
Summers was directly in the shot with the family when they disappeared. He didn’t go anywhere, though. He was perfectly fine. Just walked away.
I did my best to not let it bother me, and for a while, it just stuck with me as one of those “weird things.” Last weekend, though, when an orderly was helping me off the elevator and out of the hospital, I saw Marc Summers walking by. Everything flooded back at once, so I stopped him and asked, “Marc, so what really happened on that day in 1992? Pretty weird that you weren’t affected, huh?”
Marc just looked at me for a minute before a smirk appeared in the corner of his mouth.
“Not that weird, actually,” he replied. His left eye drooped and I saw lights and what appeared to be fiber optic cable tangled inside his skull.
“Not that weird at all.”