Archive: satellite television

Last week Ofcom gave ITV the go-ahead to cut regional output by 50%. Today ITV have duly gone and cut 1,000 jobs, almost half of which will come from regional news. ITV plc looks set to reduce the number of its regional news areas from 17 to nine.

It does make you wonder about the future of regional television, if it even exists. I have personally never been a fan of regional television, and I say that even having lived all my life in a very distinctive part of the UK. I might be the wrong person to ask though. I’m no fan of the “idiot box”. Next year, when F1 finally goes back to the BBC where it belongs, I will probably be able to say that I do not watch commercial television at all.

But regional television, it is fair to say, is not exactly pain-free viewing. More often that not, you can tell the programmes were made on a minuscule budget, and they are generally pretty naff.

Of course, back in the day, most ITV programmes were “regional” in the sense that they were made by one of the ITV franchisees. But the best programmes went out on the network and were therefore aimed at a national audience, with UK-sized aspirations and UK-sized budgets. As such, programmes that were aimed to serve a particular area were, almost by definition, sub-standard. I do wonder quite what the point of such programmes is.

It is slightly different for regional news. I can understand the appeal of having a separate bulletin dedicated to the news in a particular area. But the thing is that the regions are always too big for the bulletins to have a truly ‘local’ feel.

The ITV region I live in, STV Central, stretches from approximately where I live to Fort William while encompassing the massive populations of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Strathclyde. Watching the bulletin, you would get the impression that hardly anything ever happens outside of Glasgow apart from the politics stuff which happens in Edinburgh. Even many of the political programmes, both on STV and BBC Scotland, are made in Glasgow rather than Edinburgh. If you live anywhere else, it can feel pretty alienating.

The BBC has never even attempted to split Scotland up into regions and Reporting Scotland essentially aspires to be a national news bulletin. The problem with even this is that there either isn’t enough news to report or there isn’t enough budget. Even Scotland, with its large area and separate institutions — most importantly, the Parliament — apparently doesn’t have enough going on to properly justify taking up 30 minutes of the schedule.

Whenever I watch Reporting Scotland, they seem to spend about five minutes per programme trailing what’s coming up later in the programme. Around five minutes into the programme, they are already talking about sport. And then they are normally only talking about football. Jimmy McPhee is in the airport today ready to depart for his meaningless match. Big whoop!

Another problem with regional news — especially on ITV — is the fact that the regions do not seem to be very logical. I’ve already talked about the huge area covered by STV Central. At some arbitrary point in Glenrothes, probably depending on how far behind the hill you are, you stop receiving STV Central and start receiving STV North / the old Grampian. Why is that then? Is Glenrothes more relevant to Aberdeen than to Glasgow? That’s not clear to me. Bearing in mind the fact that much of the population of Glenrothes is or was Glasgow overspill, it doesn’t seem quite right.

Of course, that is nothing compared to the abominable “Border” region which straddles England and Scotland and takes in the Isle of Man for good measure. That is an anachronism if ever there was one. You can tell the ITV regions were originally drawn up about sixty years ago because that would never wash today. I am no nationalist, though I am a little bit of a conspiracy theorist, and one has to wonder if it was a deliberate choice to have one ITV region that took in these three political entities — a 1960s equivalent of saying “North Britain”.

It is probably wrong for me speak for residents of the ITV Border region when I don’t live there, and I can well believe that there are many people who, having grown up with Lookaround, feel very attached to it. But for me, if I lived in the south of Scotland, with legislation affecting my life being made in Edinburgh, I think I would prefer to get my news from a Scottish city rather than Carlisle.

Of course, as Cllr Fraser Macpherson points out, that situation will be even worse under ITV’s new proposals. If ITV get their way, the Border and Tyne Tees regions will be merged. So Scots living in the Borders will not be getting their news from Carlisle — they’ll be getting their news from Gateshead.

The problems of the ITV Border region are recognised, with the existence of a ‘Border Scotland’ opt-out. From what I gather, this incorporates a news segment dedicated to Scotland and editions of Scotsport. What a faff that is though. Would it not just be more sensible to go the whole hog and recognise Scotland as a distinct entity? Every so often SMG express an interest in buying the Scottish bit of the ITV Border franchise. I kind of think they ought to get on with it, particularly if it’s only going to merge with Tyne Tees otherwise.

There are two big reasons why the situation is such a mess. One is geography. I am sure there are bureaucrats somewhere or other whose dream is for the ITV regions to be transformed so that they match the government office regions of the UK. At least that would be neater, and at least that way Scotland would have its own ITV region.

The problem is, those pesky hills get in the way. There is a clever map of the ITV regions on Wikipedia, and as you can see you can’t actually draw many meaningful borders between regions. The map looks like a mess.

The big reason, though, is of course money. Maybe back in the 1960s and 1970s owning an ITV franchise was a license to print money. Today, ITV leaks money like a sieve. Richard Havers traces the change back to the introduction of satellite television. This sucked advertising revenue away from ITV and spread it thinly across hundreds of smaller channels.

Since then, the ITV companies have merged and merged and merged until they became CarltonAndGranada before becoming the ITV plc we all love to hate. Scotland was not immune either as Scottish Television swallowed up Grampian to become SMG (now STV Group) and subsequently almost merged with UTV.

It now no longer makes financial sense for ITV companies to pour money into making news programmes. Economies of scale dictate that the regions will become fewer and bigger until they cease to be regional at all (and as I argue above, perhaps that has already happened).

I think it is time to give up on the idea of regional news programmes, at least on ITV (though Scotland can probably sustain it thanks to its status as a nation, relatively large population and separate political system). But if regional news must stay on television, perhaps it would be better to think of it as a public service that the BBC alone should carry out. I know that ITV is a PSB too, but they are considering giving that up because they think it costs them too much now. The writing is on the wall.

Besides, if I want to know the local news, where do I go? I certainly don’t watch Scotland Today if I want to find out what’s going on locally. I would buy The Fife Free Press or just visit a local news website. These options are probably far more cost-effective way to get local news.

Apart from that, dare I say that local news might be one arena where people turn more and more towards citizen journalists?

A couple of times in the past I have blogged about numbers stations, a slightly creepy phenomenon where coded messages are broadcast over shortwave radio frequencies.

But more recently I have become interested in a similar phenomenon which is almost the reverse of numbers stations. Whereas numbers stations are seemingly utilised by the state for spying activities, broadcast signal intrusion is usually the opposite — members of the public hijacking television and radio broadcasts.

Perhaps the most well known is a pirate who posed as Max Headroom, hijacking two broadcasts in Chicago in 1987. The perplexing thing about it is that the broadcast was so cryptic — if it had a meaning at all, that is — that most people just scratch their heads wondering about the imposter’s motive.

The first successful hijack was short lived. It interrupted the evening news bulletin on WGN. However, only the images came through, and no audio was broadcast. An engineer at the transmitter site was able to re-gain control within 30 seconds.

Reports say that the pirate attempted to hijack several other broadcasts in Chicago, but none of them were successful. But two hours later the imposter successfully interrupted an episode of Doctor Who that was being broadcast on WTTW. No engineer was present at the transmitter, so the pirate broadcast carried on until its end. It lasted only 90 seconds, but it could have been much longer.

If numbers stations didn’t send shivers up your spine, surely this would. Imagine sitting there watching television as normal, only to be faced with this creepy transmission.

The video fascinates me. First of all, as I have mentioned, the motives are unclear. There is a cryptic message about “the greatest world newspaper nerds”. WGN, the first station to be hijacked, stands for World’s Greatest Newspaper. This suggests that WGN was the real target, but with the attempt having misfired the imposter went on to find any old place to broadcast his odd — at points disturbing — message. Even if you reach the conclusion that the message was aimed at WGN, what that message actually was is a complete mystery.

Some speculate that whoever was behind the video was simply drunk or high. I doubt this is the case. The broadcast was clearly pre-meditated. It is obvious that the message was pre-recorded because it went out twice, and there are continuity errors when the shot changes towards the end of the broadcast.

There are also probably at least three people involved in the making of the broadcast. There are at least two actors, and two people would probably be required to rotate the sheet of corrugated metal that’s used as the backdrop (the rotation is not CGI or mechanical because it is inconsistent).

A lot of technical equipment may be involved as well. Immediately after the hijacking, authorities claimed that a transmitter powerful enough to hijack a television broadcast would cost as much as $600,000 to buy, or several thousand dollars to rent. However, it seems as though this was misinformation designed to dissuade copycats.

Nevertheless, it is clearly at least a semi-professional job. Even putting aside the equipment needed to overpower a television broadcast signal, the quality of the recording looks really good for 1987 standards and the distortion in the vocals suggests at least a modicum of expertise. It obviously wasn’t amateur stuff.

Yet, the message and motive is difficult to decipher. YouTube contains another video containing subtitles with a likely transcript of what the imposter dressed as Max Headroom was saying. If you’re interested enough, I’d also skim through the comments which have interesting additional suggestions. (The subtitles in the YouTube video are definitely wrong in parts.)

Over twenty years on, people are still unclear about the intentions behind the pirate broadcast. It was clearly designed to be ambiguous. But it clearly took considerable time and effort to pull it off. No-one has ever come forward to admit to the pirate broadcasts.

Perhaps the person did it just for fun — a precursor to the hacker culture that became more prevalent in the 1990s. Perhaps it was social commentary. After all, the original Max Headroom programmes were set in a future dystopia where the world was run by giant television corporations and freedom fighters utilised exactly this trick of interrupting regular broadcasts.

The theory I favour holds that the person was a former employee of WGN who had been fired — not by his boss, but by an underling (hence the line “be a man”). This was his form of revenge.

There is a brilliant article about the Max Headroom pirating incident at Damn Interesting.

The fake Max Headroom remains at large, but another (less sophisticated) hijack broadcaster was caught. This simple broadcast is less intriguing than the Max Headroom incident in terms of its message, but is interesting because it is a successful hijacking of a satellite transmission.

A person calling himself Captain Midnight hijacked an HBO broadcast with a simple caption complaining about the channel’s price. The caption also contained an ominous threat, seemingly implying that broadcasts on two other channels would also be hijacked.

It transpired that Captain Midnight was John MacDougall, a satellite television dealer who felt that HBO’s then new fangled subscription model was hurting his sales. He was caught when a member of the public overheard him bragging about it.

Less well-known, but perhaps the scariest hijack broadcast of them all, happened in the UK way back in 1977. This seems to be among the very first examples of hijacking a broadcast, and is perhaps the most impressive. Unlike the Max Headroom incident, the motive here was clear, the message was relatively unambiguous and the broadcast was a complete success.

During an ITN news bulletin broadcast on Southern Television, the audio started crackling and the newsreader’s voice was replaced by that of “Vrillon of the Ashtar Galactic Command”. The pictures of the news broadcast continued uninterrupted. But the sound of the news was replaced by an ‘alien’ warning of an imminent global disaster unless humans became peaceful and dismantled their weapons.

Here is a great video — the audio is genuine but the pictures are not. Carry on until the end to hear follow-up news reports on the incident.

Vrillon of the Ashtar Galactic Command Incident from Labyrinth13 on Vimeo.

An impressive feat. The audio is very crackly in moments, but this is a successful hijacking of a broadcast to disseminate a clear message. Like the Max Headroom incident, a lot of planning appeared to go into it, with a series of electronic effects designed to make it sound like an alien broadcast, and samples of Looney Tunes cartoons.

Once again, the imposters have never come forward. However, given the message that put out and the irreverent set-up, it seems likely that it was a group of students who had some technical know-how and access to decent equipment.

It was rather naughty though, and clearly very distressing for some viewers. I suppose I would be too. What I would do is switch the channel to make sure I wasn’t going mad or that aliens actually were talking to me. However, these imposters successfully hijacked five major terrestrial transmitters. This is concerning, because it means that these people could feasibly have hijacked every television channel in one area and then some.

These successful hijacks are really disturbing. Apparently it is easy to hijack an analogue television signal. The only reason we haven’t seen more of it is simply because people haven’t found out about it.

Although there are only a few well-known instances of broadcast intrusion in the western world, they are much more common in less free countries. Falun Gong use the technique in China. And according to Wikipedia they were a regular feature of television in the Soviet Union.

In the mid-1980s one of Poland’s leading astronomers, Jan Hanasz, managed to superimpose captions on top of state television broadcasts. Using basic equipment, he and three others managed to display the logo of the Solidarność labour movement and implored viewers to boycott elections. Some say this action was one of the first cracks in the Iron Curtain.

That is an example of using this technique for good. But imagine if there was a genuine major national emergency. Any rogue elements with enough know-how and resources could easily hijack the emergency transmissions to spread misinformation or generally wreak havoc and cause panic.

A part of me wonders if this is the real reason why governments around the world are in the process of switching off analogue transmissions and engaging in a digital switchover process. Digital broadcast signals are encrypted, making them much more difficult to hijack.

But pranksters are using different methods to hijack digital broadcasts. Some Czech artists are currently standing trial after they tampered with on-site camera equipment to make a computer-generated mushroom cloud appear in a panorama shot during a weather forecast.

As technology improves, more and more broadcasts will be automated. It will be a ripe environment for future pirates.