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Pirate Television in History

1. Fantasy

Probably the first reference to pirate television (in Britain at least) comes, amusingly, in the 1940 film Band Waggon, in which Arthur Askey and ‘Stinker Murdoch’ establish a pirate television station in opposition to the BBC.

The plot is somewhat fanciful and the luckless duo rent a haunted castle set unconvincingly not far from a Green Line route (I thought those castles were only to be found in remote parts of Scotland), where they discover television equipment being used by spies. The latter take to their heels and the Band Waggoners put on their own pirate television service, much to the annoyance of the BBC. There's plenty of fun in the film, even though the television equipment looks somewhat cardboardy. The impression the film gives of the BBC television programming, although a parody, is probably not far from reality, which gives the film added interest.

2. For commercial gain

The apparent success of the offshore pirate radio stations around the British Isles in the 1960s led several of their owners to consider television as well. Ships and towers in the sea do not offer ideal transmitter sites, however; weather conditions can make it problematic to supply them week-in and week-out, generating large amounts of power onboard ship is difficult and the signals transmited close to sea level will not reach far over the average kind of hilly countryside.

There were three proposals:

Tower TV was to broadcast from the Sunk Head fort in the sea 14 miles off Walton on the Naze on the Essex coast. Although photographs exist of a rather crude-looking industrial CCTV camera shooting the Tower TV caption, there is some dispute whether they ever in fact went on the air. The alleged first reception was at 4.20 AM on Tuesday 9th November 1965. The channel chosen (5) was not one used in the Essex/Kent/London area (many sets would not be equipped to receive it) and the low power of the transmitter (10 watts) meant few people would have seen these transmissions, had Tower ever gone on the air.

City TV was a project to broadcast from an ex-Naval minesweeper: it did not reach reality, though detailed plans were made. These were announced on 8th June 1965, following the Government's announcement of its intention to ban cigarette advertising on TV from 1st August. Initial capital outlay was estimated to be US$ 85,000 and if advertising support was forthcoming, 'top quality' films and news bulletins were to be broadcast on channel 3 (used by the BBC in Wales, well out of the range of City's projected coverage of south-east England). Once again, however, many receivers would not have been equipped for channel 3.

Caroline TV was to be broadcast from a plane, similar to the American Stratovision experiments of many years previously. It too did not get off the ground, though photographs of the station idents were issued.

In fact the only successful British offshore television station was in fact TV Noordzee, a British-owned affair in the mid-1960s on an artificial island off the Dutch coast shared with the radio station Radio Noordzee. It was a 625-line affair, operating in Band III and showing canned programmes imported from the USA. Although extremely popular, it was declared illegal after a while and ceased transmitting when a raiding party landed from Dutch government helicopters. The station stimulated the legalisation of commercial television in the Netherlands and the present-day TROS broadcaster there is the descendent of the original TV Noordzee.

There was one other offshore pirate TV station, TV Syd, which transmitted off the Swedish coast on channel 41 in the UHF band. The ship was shared with a radio station, Radio Syd. It did not last long but had the distinction of possessing a real studio on board for making continuity announcements. 

Another station was called Odelia TV, which broadcast from a ship called the Odelia, anchored off the coast of Israel in 1981. For more information on this station, please go to the website, then click on Odelia TV to see a brief history of this short-lived station.

3. Lunacy

Britain’s main television transmitters have direct sound and vision feeds (by microwave) from the central studio centres but many of the smaller transmitters rely on off-air reception (in other words, they receive programmes off-air from main stations and re-broadcast these on another channel). In the past it was possible for people with the requisite technical knowledge and skills to ‘take over’ these rebroadcast transmitters by sending their own transmissions on the same frequency as the main station at a stronger level than the weak signals of the distant main transmitter.

Students at Oxford in the 1960s used the sound transmitter of the BBC 405-line station there for their own radio telephone system for instance but as they did this in the middle of the night, outside normal programme hours, nobody noticed.

People did notice in 1977, however, when a message purporting to come from Vrillon of ‘Ashtar Galactic Command’ interrupted Southern Television's 5.45 pm news programme. "We come to warn you of the destiny of your race and your worlds so that you may communicate to your fellow beings the course you must take to avoid the disasters that threaten your worlds and the beings on the worlds around you. This is in order that you may share in the 'great awakening' as the planet passes into the new Age of Aquarius," they declared.

The event attracted a lot of media coverage at the time, as well as considerable speculation over who the perpetrator might have been. The new-age nuts and the UFOlogists all claimed connection with the hijackers. The general view was this merry jape was perpetrated by students but this is not the case. The finger of suspicion points at a character connected with the broadcast industry and known as the ‘Cosmic Cowboy’ (aided and abetted by his hippy friends). In case this attribution is incorrect, however, I will not actually print his name here.

Copyright 1998 by Andrew Emmerson.

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