How Family-owned Hubbard Broadcasting
Pioneered Direct Satellite Broadcasting
In 1994 direct satellite broadcasting became the biggest consumer electronics
hit since the VCR, thanks to the vision and persistence of Stanley S. Hubbard,
patriarch of St. Paul, Minnesota-based Hubbard Broadcasting. This case study
looks at how a family-owned operation could beat well-heeled corporate giants to
become the first company to launch satellite-to-TV-set service. It offers
lessons to media companies hoping to increase their wealth by exploiting new
In the 1920s, when flying was still in its infancy, Stanley E. Hubbard not only
was piloting planes, he was using them in the dangerous job of helping the
Internal Revenue Service chase down bootleggers and drug smugglers. The St.
Paul, Minnesota, resident also was a swashbuckler in broadcasting. He became so
excited about the promise of the new medium of radio that he founded one of the
nation's first commercial stations, WAMD, in 1924. Realizing that radio
could be used to broadcast news events almost as fast as they happened, he set
up the first radio news bureau in 1925. In 1930 he founded the Radio News
Association, a sort of Associated Press for radio. And in 1931 his station
became the first in the country to have a mobile short-wave unit for
broadcasting events live from remote locations.
When television came along in the 1930s, Hubbard leaped into that medium as
well. In 1938 he bought one of the first cameras that RCA had made and began
experimenting with it. In 1939, for example, he televised an American
Legion parade to sets hooked up for the demonstration in the Radisson Hotel.
World War II interrupted the commercial development of television, but in 1946
Hubbard began building a broadcasting facility -- and in 1948 he opened KSTP-TV,
the nation's third TV station. In 1950 KSTP inaugurated the first
seven-day-a-week 10 p.m. newscast. And in 1960 it became the first
full-color independent TV station in the United States.
Fast-forward to 1997. Stanley S. Hubbard, the now-deceased Stanley E.'s son,
is chairman of Hubbard Broadcasting. The company, still family-owned, has nine
television stations and two radio stations, in Minnesota, Florida and New
earns $330 million in revenue a year.
This kind of wealth would lead many a family company to become conservative,
to pursue management strategies that keep profit at a maximum and risk at a
minimum. Not Hubbard Broadcasting. In the 16 years from 1981 to 1997, Stanley
S. Hubbard essentially bet his company on the new technology of direct
satellite-to-home-TV-set broadcasting, pouring $237 million into its
development. His gamble appears to have paid off. The 18-inch-dish version
of direct satellite broadcasting that he pioneered became the United States'
hottest-selling consumer electronic product soon after its rollout in the spring
of 1994. It has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for
his company since then, although no profit yet. Industry analysts predict that
by the year 2000, however, Hubbard will have recovered its investment and be
making an annual profit of $45 million -- despite the fact that competitors have
jumped into the market that Hubbard and its service-delivery partner DirecTV had
to themselves for a year.
This case study of Hubbard Broadcasting's trailblazing in direct-broadcast
satellite, or DBS, service offers four lessons to successful media companies
that want to become even better by seizing on new technology. The first is to
have a bold vision for a new-technology product. Stanley S. Hubbard's view that
direct-broadcast satellite should be available to every American household in
competition against over-the-air and cable broadcasting was far more sweeping
than his rivals'. They saw satellite television as serving only those unable to
get over-the-air television signals or cable hookups, or as the niche market of
serving sports bars, hotels and the like. The second lesson from the Hubbard
story is to take a long-range view when embracing a new-technology product.
Hubbard Broadcasting succeeded because Stanley S. Hubbard stayed with his
direct-broadcast satellite dream in the face of both financing and technical
obstacles. It took almost a decade to line up investors. He waited longer than
that for satellite technology to advance to the point that it could deliver what
he wanted: A small, reasonably priced satellite-television-signal reception
device that could offer home viewers more channels than cable. When the
technology caught up with Stanley Hubbard's vision in 1992, Hubbard Broadcasting
teamed with its partners DirecTV and RCA/Thomson to move swiftly to establish
the first direct satellite broadcasting service.
The third lesson in the Hubbard story is that a media company can create value
-- and generate profits -- from new technology at a number of levels. Before
creating a direct satellite broadcasting consumer market, Hubbard Broadcasting
earned millions of dollars in revenue by selling satellite-based news-gathering
equipment and services to other broadcasters. It also used satellite
broadcasting to make its own over-the-air television news operations better.
The final lesson in the Hubbard story is the value of market research. To
achieve the quickest possible success with direct satellite broadcasting,
Hubbard and its partners looked at the history of the VCR. They found a
five-year gap between the introduction of the hardware -- the VCR unit itself --
and widespread availability of the software -- the videos to play on it -- that
delayed its becoming an immediate consumer hit. To avoid this mistake with
direct satellite broadcasting, they asked the retailers who would sell their
hardware -- satellite receiver dishes -- also to sell their software --
television programming. This strategy brought quick consumer acceptance of
Lesson One: Have a bold vision
Stanley S. Hubbard was driving one of his sons to school one rainy day in 1981
when "it came to me like a vision that DBS was nothing less than a national
broadcast license." What he meant was that, instead of serving only
residents of a particular area, like over-the-air broadcasters or cable
companies did, satellite-based television could serve every household in the
United States. In contrast to Hubbard, other broadcasters believed satellite
broadcasting had a much smaller potential: Either serving people in remote
locations who could not get over-the-air television signals or whose homes were
too costly to hook up to cable, or serving the niche market of sports bars,
hotels and other businesses.
Stanley S. Hubbard not only knew that his vision of direct satellite
broadcasting was workable, but would revolutionize the industry -- and if he
failed to inaugurate it, someone else would. "Hubbard is one of the first
to recognize that the days of big, all-powerful network broadcasters are over,"
said John Hillis, president of the cable news company Allnewsco.
"Broadcasting in the future is going to be more like a supermarket, where you
offer viewers a huge assortment of products and services and live on a margin of
around 5 percent." 
Hubbard set up a subsidiary, United States Satellite Broadcasting, to develop
direct satellite broadcasting. Then he, his managers and his engineers began
boning up on satellite technology. USSB was one of the first companies to apply
for -- and win -- a direct satellite broadcasting license when the Federal
Communications Commission began offering them in 1982. Others won licenses,
too, but they stuck with their narrower visions of serving limited audiences.
In fact, most of his rivals derided Hubbard's sweeping vision of direct
satellite-to-home broadcasting as pie-in-the-sky.
He has had the last laugh, though. Direct satellite broadcasting has become
the consumer hit he envisioned, has shaken up the broadcasting industry by
becoming a formidable competitor of cable television and has turned Hubbard
himself into an industry legend. None of this would have happened without his
bold vision. "Television will never be the same again thanks to the vision and
courage of Stan Hubbard," Broadcasting magazine gushed in 1993.
Lesson Two: Take a long-term view
To try to turn his vision of direct satellite broadcasting into reality,
Hubbard set out in the early 1980s to obtain the necessary financial support --
and got nowhere. The fact that he continued to pitch for a decade before coming
up with the money was testimony to his long-term view. He also took a long-term
view on satellite technology. When he started trying to develop direct
satellite broadcasting, the technology was too primitive to produce a viable
consumer product. Rather than give up, he waited for the technology to catch up
with his vision. Luckily for him, the financing and the technology fell into
place about the same time -- in the early 1990s.
After founding USSB in 1981, Hubbard began speaking around the country to try
to drum up interest in satellite-to-home broadcasting. His objective was to
find well-heeled partners to put up most of the $1 billion he thought was needed
to start a service. But "we couldn't raise the money," Hubbard said.
"Everywhere we went, the networks had been there first. I remember going to
Sears. They said NBC and CBS had been there and told them the idea was
The rejections were dejavu for the Hubbard family. His father had had a
difficult time raising money in the 1940s to build KSTP-TV because "people
thought TV wouldn't work," he said. William Paley and Frank Stanton, who
were running CBS, "told everybody, 'Don't go into television . . . it isn't
going to work for a long time. FM's going to be the big deal.'" His father
was one of the few who "stuck their neck out, risked everything, and started
television," Stanley S. Hubbard said.
Hubbard's satellite broadcasting prospects brightened when in 1989 it landed
its first big investor, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. of Columbus, Ohio.
But oddly enough its real financing break was the news early in 1990 that Rupert
Murdoch planned to launch a satellite-based cable network in the United States.
Murdoch and his partners -- General Electric's NBC subsidiary, General Motors'
Hughes Communications Inc. subsidiary and the cable operator Cablevision Systems
-- were to use four Hughes satellites in tandem to deliver more than 100
channels of programming, according to the reports. 
The realization that Murdoch, the world's top media mogul, believed in
satellite broadcasting gave Hubbard's satellite effort overnight credibility.
"Our phone has been ringing off the hook" with investors, Stanley S. Hubbard
beamed at the time. Those who signed on included Pittway Corporation,
Vulcan Ventures, Dow Jones & Company, and the financiers George Soros and Marvin
Windows. The irony in the Hubbard financing story was that Murdoch and his
partners, whose Sky Cable plans created the excitement that led to investors
calling Hubbard, decided to scrap their project because of daunting financial
and technical problems. Murdoch still has yet to start a direct satellite
broadcasting service in the United States, although he is close to doing so.
His News Corp. and the American phone giant MCI launched a satellite for the
service in 1996, and in February of 1997 he formed a partnership with USSB
competitor Echo-Star. His service may begin as early as this year, industry
observers have said.
Within a year of lining up financing, Hubbard got the technology breakthroughs
he needed for direct satellite broadcasting. The main technical obstacles had
long been that satellites could deliver only a handful of channels at a time and
that the dish that received satellite-relayed television signals was too large
for home use. Aware of engineers' reports that digital compression of
satellite signals was theoretically possible, Hubbard asked RCA/Thomson Consumer
Electronics and Hughes Electronics Corporation to come up with a workable
version of the technology. Before 1991 was over, they had developed the
electronics to allow a satellite to carry up to 175 channels -- many more than
cable. Flush with their victory, Hubbard, RCA/Thomson and Hughes decided to
become partners in the quest for direct satellite broadcasting.
Because smaller receiver dishes can be used with digital compression than with
the older signal-transmission technology, the shift to digital solved the
problem of receiver dish size. Hubbard would be able to offer dishes only
18 inches in diameter that any rooftop could accommodate rather than the
four-foot or larger dishes the old technology demanded.
Stanley S. Hubbard's long-term view was the reason Hubbard Broadcasting was
able to obtain both the financing and the technology necessary to make direct
satellite broadcasting a success. Many companies would have given up in the 13
years between the time Hubbard came up with his vision for the service and the
time it took to turn it into reality. The hand-wringers would have contended
that the project ate up both too much money and too much of its executives'
energy. Of course Hubbard's decision to stay the course was dicey. It was also
Lesson Three: Exploit technology at several levels
Harvard Business School Professor Michael E. Porter contends that companies can
use information technology to create value at several levels: making their own
operations more efficient, serving others in their industry and creating
consumer products or services. Hubbard Broadcasting extended Porter's
principles about computer technology to satellite technology. Before it
developed direct satellite broadcasting, it came up with a way to cover news
stories live via satellite that revolutionized news broadcasting. It not only
used this twist on satellite technology to improve its own news operations, it
earned millions of dollars in profit by selling the technology to other
The trailblazing news-gathering technology was satellite dish-mounted trucks.
Hubbard had tried without success in the early 1980s to figure out how to
broadcast live from remote locations via satellite. One day in late 1983 his
son, Stanley E., who had joined the company, and Hubbard's top engineer, Ray
Conover, walked into his office with an idea. According to Stanley S. Hubbard,
his son said: "'You know, we been figuring on this. And if we were to put a
small dish with a very big transmitter on a truck, couldn't we then drive around
and transmit up to the satellite, do news, and then come back down to a big dish
at a TV station?' So we thought about that, and we tried to experiment with a
small dish on a trailer with rain and snow and sleet and thunderstorms, and it
worked just fine, contrary to what all the (network television) engineers said.
They all said it wouldn't work."
The idea was a bombshell for the industry, changing television news-gathering
forever, not only in the United States but around the world. It meant that
important stories could be broadcast as they happened rather than having to be
aired hours later because of a lag in transporting footage by car or plane from
remote locations to a station. It also meant that a local station no
longer had to depend on the networks for news from the field. It could use a
truck dish to transmit its own reports back to its news operation. That raised
the possibility, especially in big markets such as New York or Los Angeles, of
local stations producing newscasts with their own national and even
international coverage -- and not even airing the network newscasts. The
thought chilled ABC, CBS and NBC.
The networks decided that they couldn't beat the dish-on-a-truck system, so
they had better adopt it. They not only began buying their own dish-mounted
trucks, but they also offered to subsidize affiliates' purchases of rigs.
Affiliates, after all, could send live footage of breaking stories to the
networks, improving the networks' coverage.
Hubbard Broadcasting cashed in on the rush for dish-mounted trucks by having
its equipment subsidiary in Florida, HubCom, sell the rigs to other
broadcasters. With a starting price of $265,000, the trucks generated
millions of dollars in revenue. By the spring of 1986 Hubbard also was
selling a portable satellite transmitter small enough to be checked on an
airplane as baggage. It meant a reporter could fly to a remote site and do a
story without needing a dish-truck rig.
The dish-on-a-truck innovation led to another satellite service that Hubbard
Broadcasting could offer the industry: a television news cooperative. The
company formed a subsidiary, Conus Communications, in 1984 to provide it.
Individual stations in the co-op sent footage by satellite to Hubbard's
broadcasting center in St. Paul, and Hubbard beamed it to the rest of the
members. Hubbard made money by charging members for relaying the footage.
Since its founding 12 years ago, Conus has grown to about 115 members.
"Each morning, Conus editors here (in St. Paul) call stations in their regions
to find out what stories are to be covered with the stations' SNG (satellite
news-gathering) vans," the Chicago Tribune reported. "They also confer
with Washington Direct, the Conus van in Washington that broadcasts news events
and interviews from the White House or Capital Hill. The editors then compile
about 20 or so live or taped stories that they can offer the stations. Conus
arranges for satellite time and coordinates the transmission of the stories for
Conus became the backbone of another service Hubbard began offering
broadcasters in 1989: the All News Channel, a satellite version of CNN. The
joint venture with the cable and television production company Viacom not only
helped Hubbard obtain revenue from the industry, it also became a programming
staple of the direct satellite broadcasting service the company inaugurated in
Hubbard Broadcasting began making money abroad from its satellite
news-gathering operation in 1993. Former executives of the British
commercial television station Granada asked Philips Electronics of the
Netherlands and Hubbard to be their partners in a Conus-style co-op called the
European News Service. Instead of sending a film crew to another European
country to cover a story, a broadcaster could ask a station in that country to
cover it. Footage would be sent via satellite to the European News Service
headquarters facility, which would relay it to the requesting broadcaster.
"By use of membership and members' facilities, overseas production costs could
be cut to as much as a fifth of their current levels," said David Plowright, one
of the originators of the venture.
Just how much value Hubbard Broadcasting had created with Conus and the All
News Channel became apparent in 1994 when Rupert Murdoch asked the Hubbards to
sell the operations to him. Murdoch desperately wanted an all-news
operation that his Fox network could throw up against CNN, and buying an
established one would be cheaper than setting up his own. But the Hubbards
wouldn't bite. Murdoch ended up starting Fox News Network from scratch in
September of 1996.
Although the satellite news-gathering equipment and services that Hubbard
Broadcasting sold to the industry helped pay the bills, the crown jewel of its
new technology was its consumer product, direct satellite broadcasting. When
the rocket carrying the satellite that would be used for the service roared out
of its launching pad in French Guiana in December of 1993, Stanley S. Hubbard
knew his long quest was nearly over. It took a few weeks for the satellite to
be positioned properly and for technical refinements. USSB began offering
direct satellite broadcasting service to consumers in the spring of 1994.
Aware that it would be counterproductive to compete for the same customers,
partners Hubbard and Hughes decided to offer programming packages that would be
complementary rather than overlapping. Hughes' DirecTV offers basic cable
programming and sports. Hubbard's USSB offers premium channels, especially
movie channels, plus the All News Channel.
Sales of the compact satellite dishes and television set-top boxes that
constituted the hardware portion of Hubbard's and Hughes's direct satellite
broadcasting hit 1 million in the first year, making it the fastest selling
consumer product ever. The number of USSB subscribers stood at 300,000 at the
end of the first year of service. The figure tripled to 918,000 the second
year. It leveled off at about 1 million by the end of 1996 because of
competitors arriving, but Hubbard is projecting 1.6 million subscribers by June
Hubbard believes its own advertising plus a coattail effect from Rupert
Murdoch's finally entering the U.S. direct satellite TV market will help its
achieve its 1.6-million-subscriber target. Murdoch announced in February
of this year that he had bought half of Echo-Star, which began direct satellite
broadcasting service in 1996. Murdoch will use Echo-Star's satellite to start
his own US ASkyB service, which he plans to promote heavily. Hubbard thinks
Murdoch's promotion will raise consumer awareness of direct satellite
broadcasting, generating subscribers for the entire industry, which includes
PrimeStar and AlphaStar in addition to USSB, DirecTV and Echo-Star.
Another way to measure direct satellite broadcasting success besides subscriber
signups is revenue growth. USSB's revenue quadrupled from $42.3 million in 1995
to $192 million in 1996. Philip Sirlin, an analyst at Schroder Wertheim &
Co., believes it will soar to $763 million annually by the year 2000. That is
double the current revenue of the parent company, Hubbard Broadcasting. Thus it
appears that its direct satellite broadcasting service will take Hubbard's
wealth to a new threshold.
Although direct satellite broadcasting service will have the biggest impact on
Hubbard's bottom line over the long haul, the company will continue to obtain
revenue from satellite-related products and services it developed as it
pioneered direct satellite broadcasting. These products and services not only
gave it expertise that helped it make direct satellite broadcasting a reality,
they generated income to defray some of the expense of developing the
satellite-to-TV-set service. Hubbard's direct satellite broadcasting saga truly
is a classic case of a company wringing value out of technology at a variety of
Lesson Four: Market research can be crucial
In the months leading up to the December 1993 launch of the satellite that
would inaugurate direct satellite broadcasting, Hubbard, Hughes and RCA/Thomson
discussed the best way to market the service -- and came up with an innovative
idea. They would ask the thousands of retail stores that carried consumer
electronics products in the United States to sell not only the hardware -- the
satellite receiver dishes and the television set-top boxes -- but also the
software -- the programming packages.
The idea came out of market research the partners conducted. To capture as
much market share as possible before competitors could get their services
rolling, the partners sought a way to make direct satellite broadcasting a
consumer hit as quickly as possible. They looked at the history of another
consumer-product hit, the VCR, for lessons. They discovered that the VCR
did not become a juggernaut until five years after it came out because when it
was introduced there were no video stores to offer movies to play on it.
The hardware -- the VCR units themselves -- was available, but the programming
-- the movies -- was not. Hubbard and its partners decided the way to get
around this problem was, right from the start, have the same stores that sold
direct satellite broadcasting hardware sell the programming as well.
To get lots of retailers aboard, they felt they first needed to sign up a
giant. A few weeks after their satellite went up, in January of 1994, Sears
committed. "Sears Brand Central departments in about 800 multi-line Sears
stores, will offer USSB . . . subscription program packages in addition to RCA .
. . home receiver hardware," Hubbard Broadcasting announced. The partners
signed up 8,000 retail locations by the end of 1994.
In November of 1994, Hubbard made a special effort to publicize the first
commission checks it sent to retailers that had sold its programming, a splash
it hoped would persuade other retailers to sign on. "RCA dealers and home
satellite retailers, representing well over 1,000 stores, are receiving their
first DSS (Digital Satellite System) programming commission checks . . . issued
on November 7, 1994," the news release said. "Programming is an entirely
new source of revenue for consumer electronics retailers," Carl Wegener,
director of USSB's consumer electronics marketing program, noted in the
The publicity achieved the desired results. A total of 25,000 retailers had
signed on by the end of 1995, including such behemoths as Best Buy, Circuit
City, Radio Shack and Wal-Mart.
Largely because of the Hubbard consortium's innovative marketing plan,
retailers initially couldn't keep up with the demand for direct satellite
broadcasting. "In 12 Southern states where the DirecTV-USSB brand of DBS was
rolled out this summer," the Seattle Times reported in August of 1994, "dealers
can't keep the hardware in stock, and they're getting calls from all over the
country." The runaway demand prompted other consumer electronics companies
to begin making direct satellite broadcasting hardware in competition with
Thomson/RCA, which accelerated the growth of Hubbard's subscriber base. Sony
entered in 1995. By 1997 as many as 15 makers will be selling the receiver
dishes and television set-top boxes, Hubbard reported.
In early 1996, DirecTV and USSB stunned the broadcasting industry with a new
wrinkle on its marketing plan. AT&T agreed to offer incentives such as
special financing to those of its 90 million customers who wanted direct
satellite broadcasting service. The idea was to tap the phone giant's
marketing prowess to expand the subscriber base, Stanley S. Hubbard said.
The evidence indicates that the trailblazing Hubbard-Hughes-RCA Thomson
marketing plan was a major reason that direct satellite broadcasting became a
smash hit so quickly. Although customer signups leveled off in 1996, USSB and
DirecTV achieved their goal of building a large subscriber base before
competitors jumped in. The innovative marketing approach that generated the
subscriber base grew out of marketing research. It is a spectacular example of
how important such research can be to a media company's success.
What's Next for Hubbard
USSB plans to continue spending tens of millions of dollars a year to promote
direct satellite broadcasting service to continue building its subscriber base.
It spent $35.7 million in fiscal 1996, the period from June 1995 to June
1996. The heavy promotion costs were one reason its net loss grew to $95.1
million in fiscal 1996 from $74.7 million in fiscal 1995. But the Hubbard
family isn't worried.
Stanley S. Hubbard agrees with analysts who project profitability before the
turn of the century. To help shore up USSB's finances until the corner is
turned, the Hubbard family took it public in 1996, raising $206 million in the
initial public offering. The move created the unusual situation of a
privately held company -- Hubbard Broadcasting -- having a unit -- USSB -- that
is publicly owned. The stock soared to $38.50 a share shortly after the initial
public offering in February of 1996 but fell to $10.75 by the end of the year
because of the leveling off of subscriber signups, which USSB views as
temporary. Stanley S. Hubbard said the company expects positive cash flow
-- that is, revenue outstripping operating expenses -- by June of 1997 as
signups begin building again. "The stock market will follow our earnings" by
sending the value of the stock back up, he predicted.
As for the financial standing of the parent company, Hubbard Broadcasting,
Stanley S. Hubbard said in June of 1996 that "today we don't owe a nickel to
anybody, which is a very nice feeling. And we got a lot of money in the
Most of the money Hubbard Broadcasting has amassed has grown out of the Hubbard
family's long-running propensity to pioneer in broadcasting technology,
beginning all the way back in the 1920s with radio. Its development of direct
satellite broadcasting service is a textbook example of how a media company can
create value with new technology. It is a story of following basic business
principles -- having a bold vision, taking a long-range view, creating value
from technology at a variety of levels and conducting market research. Of the
four principles, the bold vision may be the most important. "Television was
pioneered by dreamers," Stanley S. Hubbard said. "Some of us have been dreaming
for so long about the next round of change . . . Now it's time to go out and do
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