Making a mockery 

1 July 2007

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Over there in Texas, Chase Erwin discovers the world of mocks, the story of British independent television – and Network Six

In the age of YouTube, iPods, RSS feeds and weblogs, the Internet has finally allowed the public to be their own broadcasters. But of course broadcasting in the true sense of the word is something few people really achieve. That’s where the mock-making ‘business’ comes in.

Odds are that in your childhood, you made mocks anytime you had a bit of paper, a pencil, and nothing but time on your hands. More often than not you’d try to recreate the ATV double-eye, or take a picture of the London skyline, hold it up to some aluminum foil, humming something similar to Salute to Thames.

As for myself, as a child in Texas, my obsession was the CBS Eye. Many times during school I’d turn over a test paper while chewing over a tough math problem and draw the circles freehand. During primary school I began to pay more attention to logos and graphics, and I’d spend weekends painstakingly trying to duplicate what I saw on the screen. They’d never quite turn out, of course, but I was better drawing the Eye than I was trying that darned NBC peacock. The perfectionist in me settled for cutting network logos out of TV Guide and making my own print advertisments for shows I had come up with in my head.

I still did this in my leisure time until about 2002, when I learned how to use Photoshop. Quickly learning that the freehand drawing method failed worse with a mouse pointer than a pen, I started curiously playing with shapes and colours generated on the computer. What I came up with was “TotalAccess.” In about the span of a day, I had come up with a logo, a slogan, and was typing both madly into Microsoft PowerPoint. Now, instead of sliding pieces of paper across a desk while narrating upcoming programmes into the void, I was cueing up animations, sounds, and pictures on a screen.

The feeling was almost euphoric. In the privacy of my own house, I had created my own fictional television network. My shows. My rules. Anytime I’d say something or witness an event at school that would merit a series, I’d come up with a title and mock up a promo for it. It was a fun hobby. The only problem was, I was the only one who knew about it. Anytime I’d talk about TotalAccess and its flagship programme, “As Seen on TV” (which I went so far as to write scripts for), I was met with confused, almost disdainful looks by my friends.

Also around this time I started to play with the Internet and my interest in television nostalgia peaked. I remembered watching reruns of Count Duckula on Nickelodeon, and wondering what Thames meant. Being five, I’d pronounced it “They-mes,” which didn’t help my grandmother when I asked her about it. But now, being a teen, I knew the correct pronunciation, as well as how to Google up queries.

Oh, wow, Thames was a television station. Neat, it was part of a network. Geez, it made a lot of shows I know about. What?! It shut down broadcasting in 1992? Thanks to the existence of TVArk, I was able to catch up in an hour’s time with the fate of this channel, which I had suddenly suffered a sense of loss over. About a decade after the fact, I was able to mourn with the rest of the UK. I also poked around and found Thames was part of a network called ITV, and that Thames and other stations throughout the years closed down after losing franchise bidding rounds, a concept unheard of in the States. I watched the Southern star famously spin off into space, read about Lord Derby’s miniature fit during TWW’s close. I even learned about the closure of LWT’s on-air identity mere months after it happened.

Through that, I soon learned about the genericism of ITV and the loss of regional identity. I found Dave Jeffrey’s absolutely superb Flash re-creations of clocks and idents. I came across Transdiffusion, and spent a good 36 hours reading the feature articles intently. And I quickly found a bunch of people who agreed that regional identity is what made television in those days so great. They felt so strongly that they came up with their own region names, programming schedules, and menu slides. It took me two seconds to decide I wanted to sign on myself.

The group I had joined was an offshoot of the now defunct presentation history site “Afternoon Programmes Follow Shortly,” or APFS for short. The APFS Network was set up like a game, with open chances to play, risks and chances, offers and sales, consequences and rewards. The game is played as if there is a second coming of the IBA: franchises bid for a region, but instead of naming a dollar figure, they simply show samples of their mocks for the station and a general idea of the programming they would offer up. Contracts are awarded to the most deserving applicants, a network schedule is drawn up, and the network is essentially ‘on air’ at that point.

During gameplay, the players come up with a regular supply of idents and menus – usually in still graphic form, but every once in awhile in video as well. Once a month, maybe rarer, there would be a ‘station challenge.’ This would be a special event – a breaking news story, industrial action, etc. – that would affect the broadcast day. Each franchise came up with graphics to illustrate how they would handle the situation. Recognition would be given to the franchise that coped best and presented professional graphics.

Perhaps the one downfall of the APFS Network game is that it created its own microcosmic society. Time in the APFS world is about five times as fast as in real-life sometimes. The game itself has been re-named twice, first as 6-Net and now as Network Six, in the hands of different operators (Authorities, if you will), and there have been almost twice as many franchise rounds since the beginning, as ITV has had in its lifetime. But on the other hand, it has been a well-documented history. Network Six has its own Wikipedia-like database, growing daily, with histories of franchises past and present, hit programmes and personalities.

The programming is arguably the second-most important element of the game behind the graphics. A network is nothing without content, and part of the requirements of running a successful franchise on Network Six is that you have a library of quality programmes that can be enjoyed by your region and the Network as a whole. My part in the game these days is to be an American programme import company. Instead of simply listing real-life series for the network and regions to air, I come up with original series of my own. As a matter of fact, “As Seen on TV,” the series I created all those years ago, was picked up during the 6-Net era to air as part of that network’s children’s block.

But in the end, its a community. A friendly community. One bound by each person’s love of television history and the hobby of computer graphics. No matter what the real ITV does to the world of British Broadcasting, the virtual world of Network Six and its predecessors are determined to keep TV regional, even if the great programmes they come up with aren’t actually transmitted to the nation.

As for myself, I participate actively in the Network Six game, still exporting American programmes that I come up with out of my daily life. My name on the forums, and the name of my fictional company, remains TotalAccess.


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