Monday, January 14, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sports Broadcasts Beamed To Desert


NEW YORK - Somewhere in the Nafud desert, a U.S. Army truck beams low-powered, high-frequency signals to a group of soldiers huddled in a tent against the cool night air of Saudi Arabia.

There might be 25 to 30 in the group, watching intently as a saw-edged voice cuts the silence:

``Islander goal!''

It's Jiggs McDonald doing TV play-by-play of the Los Angeles Kings-New York Islanders hockey game from SportsChannel America, via the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service broadcast center.

``War or no war, we'll have the same timely programming for the soldiers in the Gulf that they would get if they were home,'' said George Balamaci, chief of news and sports for the AFRTS center. ``Live is the name of the game. That's what they want to see. It makes them feel close to home . . . not left out.''

AFRTS is beaming 20 to 22 hours of live sports play-by-play a week to the Persian Gulf, as well as to American military personnel throughout the world.

``With recreation being what it is over there, I imagine TV, radio and mail from home are the big three items,'' Balamaci said. ``We feed about 1.5 million military and dependents and have about 30 zones around the world where the signals are dropped.''

Radio still is the biggest source of communication in the Gulf. Because of restrictions by Muslim leaders who monitor incoming communications, AFRTS is using three or four low-powered transmitters in trucks in the desert. Balamaci isn't sure of their range, but it's probably not more than 50 miles.

``We get to 85 or 90 percent of the audience in the Gulf with radio, and TV is witnessed probably by only 50,000 or 60,000 live, maybe 75,000,'' Balamaci said. ``The rest see it on videotape.''

About 160 U.S. Navy vessels, including many in the Indian Ocean, are linked to AFRTS via the International Marine Satellite System, or Inmarsat, and can receive radio programming on their satellite dishes, Balamaci said. But as far as shipboard TV goes, it's all videotape.

``We're not at that point in the state of the art yet where they can receive live programming on ships - unless they're tied up at the island of Bahrain, which has a dubbing facility,'' Balamaci said. ``Then they can be tied into cable and get live programming.''

Balamaci said there are several TV receiving stations in major Persian Gulf cities ``where we have embassies, but most of our people are out in the desert, and right now, live TV is limited. ''

The U.S. military transmitters aren't allowed to broadcast 24 hours because of ``inhost country sensitivities,'' Balamaci said, but Saudi religious leaders haven't objected to the content of the sports shows since they were briefed on cheerleaders.

``The only things we've had problems with are some entertainment shows like Arsenio Hall and Entertainment Tonight . . .'' if too much skin is showing.

``The religious monitors at Saudi sites get upset about that,'' Balamaci said.

``Most of that's been smoothed over now. For example, when they see cheerleaders along the sidelines in a football game, they know its part of the American culture.''

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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