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Panama Broadcast Treaty




If you ever wondered why SCN was broadcasting programs which were 20 - 30 years old back in the 1960's and 1970's, it was because of this treaty wherein the US had agreed not to broadcast programs which the Panamanian's had purchased the rights to air. The reason we never saw any of the new programs was due to a broadcast agreement between the U.S. Government and Panama which prohibited SCN from airing any shows which were being broadcast by Panama. The Panamanian TV stations and their advertisers were afraid they would lose revenue and possibly their audience if the Panamanian viewers started watching the commercial-free SCN TV, an affiliate of AFRTS (Armed Forces Radio and Television Service).


As the audience found out the hard way, this treaty covered almost every current program on the air in the US at the time. So, while our friends and families were back in the US watching Bewitched, I Dream of Jeanie and Star Trek... we were forced to watch old Black & White programs such as "Oh Susanna" "Bob Cummings" "Ida Lupino" "Gale Storm" and "Gumby."  Few of us knew then, that all of those wonderful US programs currently airing in the US, were delivered to SCN every week but could not be aired because of this Broadcast Treaty. Only after the bases were set up with a closed circuit system could the latest programs finally be delivered to the residents of the Canal Zone.


The following is an explanation of the Panama Broadcast Treaty and the history behind SCN by former SCN Program Director, Gerry Fry who finally was able to break through the restrictions in 1983 to finally allow the SCN audience to see programs they had been denied long after the entire world had already seen them:


The 1903 treaty gave the US control over the CZ "as if it were sovereign." That was interpreted in later years to cover broadcast frequencies, which were assigned by USSOUTHCOM in coordination with Panama. There was no local agreement initially on programming. 


Armed Forces Radio was born during World War II when the entertainment industry could not do enough to boost the morale of US fighting forces. All music and radio programs were provided gratis, allowing AFRS to record and distribute the top talent of the day for only the cost of reproduction and shipping. The patriotic support of AFRS was rekindled during the Korea conflict, and when TV was added to the mission in 1954 to make it AFRTS, all programs were donated free (mostly old kinescope recordings on 16mm film of top network TV shows and movies). The same agreements AFRS had with the performing guilds and unions during WWII remained in place; producers, directors, musicians, actors and actresses all donated their talent without payment of residual fees. 


When SCN-TV went on the air in the mid 50s, they were able to telecast all these network programs, complete with stateside commercials in them. SCN was on the air first in Panama, but Channels 2 and 4 followed not too long after if I recall correctly (before my time). It wasn't long before product distributors in Panama began complaining about SCN-TV airing commercials. A TV spot for Coke, for instance, would draw the ire of the Pepsi distributor in Panama who demanded equal time on SCN-TV. Many others joined the objection, and then the guilds and unions got in the act, saying they only waived their rights for the programs, not for the commercials. If the commercials were aired, they wanted payment of residuals. 


AFRTS was forced to cut out the commercials in Hollywood to ensure access to programming without taxpayer cost. As you know, the commercials were later replaced by DoD spot announcements on a wide variety of command information topics. With Panama's close ties to the U.S., both Channel 2 and 4 naturally turned to U.S. programming, dubbed in Spanish, for their program schedules. They had to pay for the programs; AFRTS for SCN-TV and the rest of the world did not. 


The Panamanian station managers shrewdly used this to their advantage, telling the NBC, CBS, ABC, Warner Brothers, Columbia, etc. reps "we won't buy your programs/movies if SCN airs them first." Oh oh! Programs for AFRTS worldwide distribution are selected and obtained by the AFRTS Broadcast Center, then in Hollywood. The process of negotiating for the gratis rights to these shows moved several times from Washington, D.C. to Hollywood and back again, eventually ending up in Hollywood since that is where most of the TV entertainment industry ended up. Negotiators have been military officers and civilians; none has been a diplomat, although all have tried to be diplomatic. Currently it's a civilian function.


Eventually, as TV production costs rose and patriotism from WWII waned, distributors of TV entertainment programs and movies asked for money; they were now selling their products overseas to government-owned and commercial stations and they believed AFRTS should also pay. Now came the Catch 22 -- in the government, when a lot of similar products are available, you must go out for bids. There was pressure from Washington to apply that process to TV programming. Can you imagine a program schedule made up of lowest bid sitcoms? The compromise was that AFRTS would pay a token fee for selected entertainment properties, but that no program owner would receive more than another. During my 14 years as Director of Programming, we paid about 5 cents on the dollar for top-rated shows. Most news, sports and network-owned entertainment shows are still gratis to AFRTS, but Panama and Korea, where commercial broadcasters use the same NTSC TV broadcasting technical standard as does the U.S. (which means anybody living in those countries can watch the AFRTS signal), continue to have program restrictions.


While I was Program Director of SCN I devoted a good deal of time coordinating with my counterparts at Channels 2 and 4 (the only two on the air when I left in 1976) their program plans. The worst thing I could do would be to put on a new, top-rated program, only to be told two weeks later that I couldn't air it anymore because Panama wanted it. Talk about a pissed-off audience! So rather than do that, if either of them had plans for any show I knew AFRTS was going to send me, I would never start it and hope that I could use it after they had played it. I made annual excursions to Hollywood to personally select and pack 16mm film prints of shows and movies that had been distributed by AFRTS several years before, but had already been aired in Panama and never seen by the SCN audience due to previous restrictions by the distributors. 


When I left, we had the world's largest film library, used unfortunately all too frequently to fill the holes caused by the 35-40 percent of the weekly program package from AFRTS that we could not air. Naturally, these were the top shows of the day. I could never quite understand why a Panamanian audience would watch, and apparently enjoy, such stupid U.S. shows as "Beverly Hillbillies," but they loved it! Restrictions on SCN programming were not the result of diplomatic treaty or local contracts, but were agreed to by officials in Washington and Hollywood to keep the best U.S. programming flowing to the rest of the DoD audiences around the world (where commercial broadcasts are in a different technical standard) at little or no cost to the taxpayers. If AFRTS had to compete with foreign broadcasters and pay full commercial rates, the annual budget would be so big Congress would never approve it, and there would be no AFRTS at all. 


TV programs then were distributed on 16mm film (later videotape) in weekly program units from the Broadcast Center in Hollywood. SCN was first stop on a circuit of five to seven AFRTS outlets. Each outlet was permitted to use the programs in a program unit during one week, then ship them to the next outlet. In most cases, Panama would sign a contract for a current U.S. program, but it might be a year later before they ever put it on the air (it had to be dubbed into Spanish first). By that time, the show would have been three or four outlets down SCN's program circuit, perhaps even all the way through it. Industry agreements/contracts specified each program/movie could move only one-time through each circuit without repurchase.


When I became Director of Programming at the Broadcast Center, I successfully argued that SCN's audience never got to see the shows that were restricted, and hence the program owner "owed" a play on SCN after their Panama commercial airings were through. I directed that copies of all restricted programs (by then being distributed on videotape) be kept in our Hollywood vault until we could get them cleared for SCN. We carved the manpower out of our hides to catalog, pull and ship those tapes back to SCN after clearances were obtained. 


So SCN-TV from 1983 on was able to telecast previously-restricted series and movies, albeit months or even years after stateside airings of the same shows. I doubt AFRTS would ever have done that had I not been in a position to arrange for it. After 12 years of living with the restriction nightmare at SCN, I wanted to do everything in my power to help my successors provide the best programming they could to the Canal Zone audiences.


Gerry M. Fry

SCN Program Director 1964-1976



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