Thirty years ago, London gained a new television channel — for just 30 minutes every Friday and on air for less than a year — this was NeTWork21.
NeTWork21 was one of the very few attempts at a pirate TV channel, and using just handheld cameras and a low power transmitter in Lambeth reached a reputed 50,000 people with its arts-focused reporting.
Today anyone can open a YouTube account and create an online television channel, or with a bit more money, rent space on a dark and distant corner of a satellite feed — but back in 1986, to reach the masses needed a normal TV channel broadcast over the normal airwaves. And totally illegal.
Thus was NeTWork21 born, made using Sony Video 8 cameras and broadcast on Channel 21 — just below Thames TV. The instruction to viewers was to turn the TV dial to ITV at midnight, then slowly turn it a bit to tune into Channel 21. If there wasn’t anything by 12:30am, then assume nothing was being broadcast.
This, I should point out to some readers was at a time when many televisions still changed channels by rotating a dial to the correct frequency — 23 for ITV, 26 for BBC1, 30 for Channel 4 and way up at 33 for BBC2.
And if you had an early home computer, you usually rotated the dial right up to channel 35 to get the Sinclair ZX Spectrum loading screen.
But if you found Channel 21, then just after the midnight hour you might find 30 minutes of rushed video. The aim was to cover the ordinary lives of Londoners and the burgeoning underground art scene which the film makers felt was being overlooked by the mainstream media.
A complaint which is probably as true today as it was then.
Despite its pirate operation, the channel garnered a decent amount of media coverage in the print press, and not all of it was entirely unsympathetic.
It came to an end just shy of its first birthday, with a raid by government officials on the property to shut-down the channel. Although they curiously left the antenna behind, and the champagne bought for the anniversary party.
Thirty years ago today — London’s short lived experiment with an arts-focused pirate TV channel.
You can still watch a few episodes thanks to that thing which has gone on to popularise personal broadcasting — the internet.
Today, while the dream of freedom to broadcast terrestrial TV remains just a dream, a highly regulated and expensive dream, the rise of online technologies and the collapse of the cost of producing video content means that in spirit at least, NeTWork21 is still with us — all the time, on YouTube, Twitter or Vine.