1 August 2001 tbs.pm/1925

[Updated 15 September 2004 to add extra information]
[Updated 24 March 2022 to correct ‘Ivor Mills’ to ‘Andrew Gardner’]

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is more than 20 years old. The formatting may be strange, links broken and/or images missing. The text may have been superseded by subsequent events or later research.

Broadcasting frequencies are a rare commodity. Take, for example, British UHF analogue terrestrial television: there are 48 channels available on the dial, and yet we can only receive five, at the most.

What about the other 43 channels? Why aren’t they being used to provide more programme choice on the analogue network?

The problem is interference. Let’s say two transmitters with adjacent coverage areas used the same channel – the same frequency – to broadcast on. There would inevitably be places where the service areas overlap and here the receiving aerial would pick up both signals. The result would be co-channel interference, as can occasionally be seen during unusual weather conditions. It appears as a weaker picture on top of the wanted picture, and/or horizontal white lines on the screen.

In order to cover a large area, there has to be many transmitters, and each transmitter coverage area might be adjacent to a number of other transmitters. For example, the Sutton Coldfield transmitter north of Birmingham has seven main transmitters adjacent to its service area: Winter Hill, The Wrekin, Waltham, Ridge Hill, Oxford, Sandy Heath and Emley Moor, not to mention relay stations filling in the gaps.

It can be seen that, although locally there appears to be plenty of empty space on the dial, other locations sharing the same transmitter have the empty space in different places.

The same is true for both radio and television. The broadcasting spectrum is crowded.

Broadcasting is lucrative – both for business and for governments, who rent out the space, and as such a frequency on which to transmit is a sought after thing indeed. If caught, those who broadcast without a licence can expect severe penalties – they do not pay a ‘rental’ to the Government and are not regulated.

Radio piracy is quite common, particularly in large cities, as the equipment is cheap and readily available. Television piracy is more rare, which reflects the increased complexity of television over radio.

However, television is the best way of putting a point across and the necessary equipment has become easier and cheaper to come by in more recent years.

Regulation of Television

Since television is a powerful influencing medium, it is felt that certain controls be applied to those that broadcast. There are regulations that protect children from scenes that may cause distress or otherwise be unsuitable for them, fairness and impartiality regulations, and taste and decency regulations, amongst others. There is also indirect regulation, in that the broadcaster could be taken to court for, for example, defamation of character.

Pirate broadcasters are not subject to the conditions of a licence, since they do not have one. They are outside the control of the regulators since there is no licence to revoke.

In summary, the shortage of frequencies and lack of control over unlicensed broadcasters are the two main reasons why pirate TV is illegal.

Illegality doesn’t stop it from happening, though.

Southern and the Alien

Although TV piracy involving a home-made transmitter does occur, these only reach a very small section of the population, running into the hundreds, possibly thousands. The most famous and best-documented TV piracy incidents involve the hijacking of existing broadcasters’ transmitters, so that many more people can be reached.

An early example occurred in the UK, at 5:12 pm on November 26, 1977, at a time when public interest in UFOs and aliens was running high. During the news, being read by Andrew Gardner, a voice, accompanied by what one witness termed a ‘bopping sound’, interrupted the broadcast (the picture remained of the newsreader) and introduced itself as “Vrillon, representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command.” The broadcast lasted five-and-a-half minutes, during which time the voice announced that “for many years you have seen us as lights in your skies… we speak to you now in peace”, warned against the use of nuclear weapons and stated that humanity had “but a short time to learn to live together in peace and goodwill,” before it destroyed itself.

It was apparently transmitted over the entire Southern Television ITV region using the VHF transmitters (the UK used both UHF and VHF transmitters at the time, radiating the same programmes). It is thought that the pirate transmitter was aimed at a receiver high up the VHF distribution chain, and a signal sent that overpowered the ‘official’ signal from the television station.

The transmission also apparently occurred at a time when the IBA’s monitoring facility was being moved from one location to another, which may have resulted in the broadcast going initially unnoticed, the fact that it was in sound only, leaving the vision untouched, making it even more difficult to spot.

UFO pundits on talk-shows during the following week assured listeners that the broadcast was “almost certainly genuine”, as it contained names, concepts and phrases that occurred frequently in alleged ‘contactee’ experiences.

There are various pages on the Internet relating to this incident – should you do more research remember to take them with a pinch of salt!

The Fake Max Headroom

Similarly, but more recently, in November 1987, a pirate in the US took over public broadcasting station WTTW 11 during an episode of Doctor Who – this time in vision as well as in sound.

At the time there was a popular TV show (on the licensed networks) called Max Headroom that featured a ‘computer generated’ personality (actually a live actor in make-up). During the broadcast the pirate wore a Max Headroom mask to hide his identity, and generally fooled around. The interruption lasted for about 90 seconds.

Officials believed that the pirate had overpowered a microwave feed into the Sears Tower, used for transmission.

Captain Midnight – Superhero or Supervillain?

A year before that, Home Box Office (HBO) in the US became the first pay-TV company to scramble its satellite signal. Customers with dishes had to pay programme fees and buy decoders, and the satellite dish market was depressed. John MacDougall, a dish retailer, had seen all his profits vanish.

He also worked part-time at a satellite uplink station. After the channel he was uplinking had closed down for the night, MacDougall parked the dish where it was safe from rainfall that could alter its sensitive position.

This parked position happened to point to a satellite used to downlink HBO to satellite customers in the Eastern US. He decided to override HBO’s vision with a message from a caption generator:


He was caught, had to pay a $5,000 fine and received a year’s probation.

The overriding of broadcasts appears to be rare these days – broadcasters have become wise to the techniques and have measures in place to protect their programmes.

And who wants to risk a large fine and possible prison sentence for a practical joke?

You Say

3 responses to this article

Philopablo 1 April 2017 at 7:30 am

Excellent ! Really good article and pretty ”dowwn to Earth”

Arthur Vasey 24 March 2022 at 8:25 am

SOUTHERN AND THE ALIEN: The newsreader at ITN was Andrew Gardner, not Ivor Mills!

David Boothroyd 29 December 2022 at 2:39 pm

A podcast (‘The Interruption’ by Tommie Trelawny on Stak) has now identified a plausible perpetrator for the Southern TV hijack of 1977: Bob Tomalski, aka Roger Tate, then a leading pirate radio broadcaster in south-west London.

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