Technology : Jamming the Box
Steve Hamley investigates the world of pirate TV. From August 1987.
'I'm convinced there'll be three or four stations operating in London by the end or the year' , claimed Jim Young of Channel 36, London's First TV Pirate back in March 1985. So just where are they then?
Pirate TV in the UK
Pirate TV has been slow coming to Britain. The first attempt was Telstar TV in Birmingham who operated in early 1984. They broadcast after BBC2 closed down each Saturday night showing a mix or feature films and pop videos all generally available from local video shops. However after only a few broadcasts they disappeared. At the time this was explained as being 'for fear of the consequences of being caught" but this was never properly explained. The DTI was reported to be devoting a large effort into trving to track them but with remote equipment the risks would not have been that great.
Later the same year Pirate TV came to London with Channel 36. The people behind it had been waiting for eight months for a development licence for their 'revolutionary' low-power transmitter and finally in desperation decided to put it on the air. From a rented room in Crystal Palace they staged two test transmissions after calling in the media. Two days later the licence arrived and they stopped broadcasting.
Next in line was Thameside Television who began in late '84. Really this station was doomed from the start: the picture quality was poor and the sound could only be received by tuning in on a radio. They also attracted the attention of the DTI and were raided after just a few test transmissions.
The most successful attempt so far came with the arrival of Network 21 in April 1986. For six months they broadcast an innovative mix of independently produced material managing to attract a reasonable audience and proving that pirate TV could be done. However it looks like there could be a new breed of pirate TV broadcasters who rather than broadcasting direct to viewers' TVs exploit loopholes in existing TV stations
Cable TV Loopholes
This form of pirate television was probably born in the Netherlands due mainly to the rapid investment in cable TV in that country. To provide as wide a range of channels as possible the cable networks use high masts to receive overseas television. British Television is a favourite – and they don't have to pay a licence fee either!
However, the picture quality will not be as good as local channel as the signal is obviously fairly weak. This is how the pirates get in. They can easily block out the weak signal with their own beamed from a small directional transmitter nearby. The equipment they use for doing this is extremely simple. A video recorder will have its output tuned to the channel being received by the cable station. This will be amplified perhaps up to around a quarter of a watt and fed to a directional TV aerial that further amplifies the signal. The signal produced by the apparatus blocks out the other broadcast and replaces it with the pirate station's own programmes.
This is where the problems usually begin. The Netherlands had to bring in additional regulations fr cable TV operators requiring them to switch off a channel should it be hijacked by a pirate. Despite its fairly liberal laws, video nasties aren't what you'd expect to find on your TV even from a cable station. Even less in the middle or a programme from Aunty Beeb, despite what Mr Tebbit says.
Jamming Comes To Britain
So far the only attempt at this sort of jamming appears to have been in the South West of England at Plymouth, or so it would appear. The Western Evening Herald back in the middle of February carried reports of late night X-rated shows being carried on the Television South West (TSW) channel after closedown.
At the end or broadcasting for the day there is usually a gap or around 20 minutes before the relays turn off. It was in this time that an unknown pirate was putting out their own shows. As most TV relays simply operate by picking up the signal from the main transmitter or another relay and re-broadcasting it on another channel this leaves them open to hijacking in a similar way to cable systems. It is assumed that this was the method used in Portsmouth. However, as the programmes put out were mostly tapes compiled by engineers at TV stations around the country, some people have thought that they must be coming from inside the station itself. This is denied by TSW.
Mary Whitehouse was quick to condemn the broadcast, telling the local paper "I am horrified about this and I really think TSW should call in the police. These shows are totally illegal and I urge people in Plymouth to contact the IBA as soon as they see the films". Remind me not to get a job as their night Switchboard operator...
Quite what the future is regarding pirate TV in Britain no one really knows. The Portsmouth station seems to have vanished after its initial broadcasts, but Network 21 'The TV' promises it will be back. Several pirate radio engineers have experimented with TV transmissions and it seems to be generally considered that the actual broadcasting is not a problem. The difficulties lie in programme production.
Although it is possible to produce and edit programmes using home video equipment, it is extremely time consuming and not very precise. More sophisticated systems at a reasonable price are slowly beginning to become available but it's still doubtful how many people would be willing to put in the time needed to produce original programmes. More likely is that future TV pirates would simply put out material that is already commercially available. For those seeking something more original on the airwaves we may begin to see pressure from video workshops for access to the airwaves. Many or them want to put their programmes across to a wider audience and low powered TV stations would provide this. Who knows, the focus may shift from community radio to community television.
- Offshore 1987
- Pirate Radio Violence
- Jamming the Box
- Behind the Dial
- Rate it!
- AM/FM Guide
- October 1985
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