Could aliens really watch old TV shows?

By: Kate Kershner

Aliens would have to have some extremely sensitive technology to pick up signals from FM radio and TV.
Aliens would have to have some extremely sensitive technology to pick up signals from FM radio and TV.
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Before we answer the question at hand, let's consider what kind of television shows would be most appealing to aliens. Since we can assume that they won't speak any language we're transmitting, they probably wouldn't be into something teeming with dialogue. That rules out "The West Wing" and equally banter-heavy shows. Reality shows? Can't be that much more interesting to them than they are to us. Talk shows? Nonsensical. Perhaps the only TV shows that would really capture their attention would be slapstick comedies and "American Gladiators." Everyone can get behind Lucille Ball stuffing chocolate candy into her face or spandex-clad weightlifters prodding each other with giant foam mallets.

But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Is it even true that aliens on far distant planets in remote galaxies could somehow pick up our radio or television signals and thus pirate our episodes of "Game of Thrones," just like a tech-savvy college kid who can't afford HBO?

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First, let's start with a bit about radio and television signals: A lot of our signals aren't going to escape our own ionosphere; shortwave radio signals and the like just aren't powerful enough to puncture the upper atmosphere. FM radio signals and television signals, however, are much stronger and can escape into the universe — while traveling at the speed of light, no less. So that sounds promising, right? When we meet the aliens, our icebreaker can be a discussion of what "The Sopranos" finale meant.

Predictably, not quite. There are a couple things in the way of aliens sitting down with a bowl of popcorn and "Friends." One is that television signals spread out over a lot of different directions, so they're not in a concentrated beam. That means that in the universe, they're way weaker than they are on Earth — billions upon billions times weaker [source: BBC Magazine]. Aliens would have to have some extremely sensitive technology to pick up the signal. Even if they were able to receive it, they'd be dealing with a cacophony of background "noise" from the universe that could obscure it.

Nevertheless, we earthlings have still tried. In 2008, NASA commemorated its 50th anniversary by transmitting The Beatles' song "Across the Universe" toward the North Star, Polaris, about 430 light-years away. Any aliens would've needed a 7-foot-wide (2.1-meter-wide) antenna to catch the signal — and a 500-mile-wide (805-kilometer-wide) antenna to recognize it as music [source: BBC Magazine].

Bottom line? Assuming aliens are even looking for our signals, the chances of them having the right technology and power to understand them seems slim. But the universe is a huge place; maybe it's more unbelievable to think there isn't anyone out there listening than it is to assume there is someone tuned in.

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  • BBC News Magazine. "Can Our TV Signals be Picked up on Other Planets?" Aug. 6, 2008. (Sept. 9, 2014) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7544915.stm
  • McKie, Robin. "Aliens Can't Hear Us, Says Astronomer." The Guardian. Jan. 27, 2010. (Sept. 9, 2014) http://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/jan/27/aliens-cant-hear-us-astronomer
  • NASA. "NASA Beams Beatles' 'Across The Universe" Into Space." Jan. 31, 2008. (Sept. 9, 2014) http://www.nasa.gov/topics/universe/features/across_universe.html
  • The SETI Institute. "FAQ." 2014. (Sept. 9, 2014) http://www.seti.org/faq

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