Concepts in Alternative Television


This thread is about weird times you’ve had with your television. What kinds of atypical programming has been beamed into your skull? Creepy station idents? Public access obscurities? Hacked signals? This is a thread for uncanny broadcasts.

I was reading a book of 1980’s interviews with the author J.G. Ballard, and he had some real choice quotes about TV that inspired me to make this thread.


“All you’re getting is the umpteenth rerun of The Omen or Jaws. I’d rather watch a really hard documentary about sharks, lasting two hours, than watch Jaws. It’d be much more interesting. With no holds barred – not the sort of documentary prepared for an evening family TV audience, but the sort of documentary that might be prepared for a convention of marine biologists. It’s that that one wants to get hold of, but – access is a problem…”


“Actually, I remember when the first live birth was shown on TV – around '62 or '63 – and it was stunning. To actually see the baby emerging from between the mother’s legs, coming into life, actually stopped this country in its tracks; everybody the next day was talking about it. I feel that there are still very large areas of human experience that need to be given that treatment. I think there are great possibilities.”


“Italian TV went through a wonderful experience. They found some loophole about five years ago in the law governing the franchise arrangements for television stations. The result was that anybody could start a television station. So they had totally unregulated TV pouring out. The claim is always made that you can’t have unregulated TV, or you’d have the airwaves jammed all the time. In fact, this wasn’t the case. In one small city there were about 20 rival channels pouring out stuff – extremely permissive kinds of programming, where local housewives were doing striptease shows, or appearing on late night programs telling sex secrets about their husbands to all their neighbors… Absolutely incredible material, like a bar full of drunks at the end of a party. It sounded great!”




Night Walk

From 1986 to 1993, when regular programming ended for the night, the Global Television Network in Ontario aired handheld POV footage of a walk through the city of Toronto, set to lonely jazz. Later they would air Night Ride, shot from the passenger seat of a car. After that, they got back on foot and filmed the third installment, Night Moves.

The video above is the pinnacle of this stuff, in my opinion. The camera doesn’t just stick to the streets, it wanders in and out of buildings both open and closed to the public. You see all parts of the city - convenience stores, malls, subway stations, busy streets… You see others passing in the night but you never talk to them. It establishes a really incredible mood.

Someone has set up a live feed that plays through the entire set of programming, emulating what it would have been like to tune in on your television in the dead of night:


this is a better end of hiatus post than the one i deleted


Wow. Yes.



I have sort of a fantasy of a television station that just plays home movies and other ephemera from the past, and nothing else. In particular, I want to see hours of stuff like this masterpiece:

A group of teenagers simply goofing around and talking to other customers at a 7-11 at 2:30AM near Disney World in 1987. It has such a remarkable sense of place and time. You feel like you’re there with them. Everyone they talk to in the video is so friendly too - when this was recorded, it was relatively novel for a random person to be filmed. The people in this video don’t expect that anyone but the videographer and his friends will ever see it so they’re totally cool with it. You’ll never see that dynamic again.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a TV cameraman filmed a ton of b-roll of various locations in the USSR. He’s recently uploaded his footage to YouTube and it’s kind of mindblowing.


The creepy puppet anthology thing I saw on two different occasions when I was a kid still strikes me as peculiar to me, especially since it was a random one-shot thing that no one else seems to have heard of and there is no information on the net about it whatsoever.

I remember switching over to what I think was a public access channel that used to exist here and found what looked like a student film about a bunch of guys in an office building shooting laser guns at each other. That seemed to be the entire show, just some nerds in white shirts and ties diving behind desk shooting crappy digital effects out of plastic toy guns for at least a straight fifteen minutes.

When I was a kid, the Sega Master System seemed to have a damaging effect on the TV that meant it only showed static on all but one channel. To watch regular television on it, we would have to ‘warm up’ the TV by leaving it on channel SBS during the daytime, which was mostly foreign language shows. So I remember on school holidays sitting there with the TV on mute watching a Russian soap opera called Den of Wolves, which seemed to revolve around some bearded doctor and a woman faking a pregnancy.


I saw a lot of weird shit on middle of the night Toronto stations but nothing I would say is particularly obscure or creepy though.

I do remember some public access show that was either out of Toronto or Buffalo that I saw a couple of times in the 90’s when I stayed home from school. No one I speak to seems to remember it but it was just a guy in a carpeted pit surrounded by switchboards and he had a large keytar type machine that operated the special effects for the screen. I was young so I don’t remember what the show was about but I loved seeing how he mixed all the various effects and it got really psychedelic and weird sometimes, like the weird visuals Tim and Eric did only if it was running on DOS and all live. He could isolate parts of the screen and move it around, resize it, change the colours, manipulate the audio, and play random animations and text all from this keytar thing but it was all rather pixelated. It was neat to see someone control motion graphics live so effortlessly even if it looked kinda of junky.

Also it wasn’t Harold from the Red Green show but I wonder if he was inspired by this guy.


Until the early 2000s, my family lived in a pretty rural area and the only way we had to get serviceable television was to use one of those giant satellite dishes. A consequence of this was we could watch feeds that were intended for cable providers to use as the basis for their programming, as well as many other wacky things out there in space. One day while I was at school, my mom found what appeared to be an internal feed beaming Apple keynotes to other Apple offices around the world. Given that Apple didn’t stream their events live until fairly recently, and a 320x240 QuickTime video of the event wouldn’t go up for maybe a week after the event at the time, this became my new go-to station whenever I knew Apple was going to be doing anything, and I had a stack of VHS tapes with various Apple announcements on them.


'90s graveyard hour Channel 4 in Brexistan was redolent with this sort of thing, thank fuck


My dad and sister and I used to watch the gem shopping network a fair amount for some reason. There was one guy named Marvin who was on all the time and was our favorite presenter. One time my dad called the phone number to try and get an autograph from him. He actually stopped broadcasting for about a minute to tell him no. That was surreal, seeing my dad affect live television

Cattle auctions on RFDTV are something else, too.


I bought one of these Groovetube suction-on filters, a long time ago, and used to run it on a 13" crt tuned to whatever while falling asleep.


RFDTV is great because they play cowboy poets and cowboy singers still


One time a friend and I grabbed some brews and stayed up all night watching the QVC home shopping network. Those hosts work astoundingly long shifts with no breaks! We watched as, over the course of 8 hours, one of the hosts steadily became loopier and loopier. At one point she was physically trying to sell dresses, but verbally listing her favorite types of cheeses and explaining their rankings. You could see the moment she caught herself doing that and redirected herself back on track.

FYI, the most visually appealing presentation that QVC offers is the segment on electric candles with fake flames. They posed them elegantly in dusky bedrooms where every surface and furnishing was coated with dark, smooth satin.


This reminds me of the time I went to work on 0 hours of sleep after an ill advised mushroom trip, whereupon i fell asleep in the middle of a phone call and started mumbling about oranges.


one thing i’ve always envied of america was the local tv thing. just the idea that every town, sometimes even only parts of a town, would have their own tv channels is really interesting. also the possibility that such a wild west approach suggests, as seen in videodrome and the candle cove story that did the rounds onine a few years ago.
i think the closest thing you could get in the uk was lazy afternoons at home alone as a kid, playing with the analogue satellite tuner. thanks to the way satellite tv is broadcast in a huge “footprint”, you could pick up channels from across europe, and as far east as russia or as far south as north africa. so there was plenty of potential and mystery to be had there. my fondest specific memory though is just watching godzilla vs gigan in german, with german ad breaks and so on. i felt like such a genius for finding something cool to watch from another country, even if i couldn’t understand any of the dialogue.

another thing to while away the boredom was finding “secret” teletext test pages, though the pages themselves weren’t interesting at all:

recordings of these feeds from live wrestling shows were/are highly valued among super-hardcore wrestling fans, since you get to hear all the production talk, as well as the commentators’ bitchy gossip about their co-workers


Couple public access things:

One time I caught a public access rant by a guy complaining that one of his previous broadcasts had been censored. Apparently what he had done was put a pair of googly eyes on the tip of his penis, hang a little suit from it, zoom in real close, and make it “talk” using the urethral opening as a mouth. It was supposed to be George HW Bush. He showed a drawing of what it looked like.

Also, I think a couple of you may be Atlantans. If so, does anybody remember New Intelligence with Jan Cox?

(I’m just putting that there to give you an idea. Don’t try to grasp what he’s talking about; he always seems to be on the cusp of making a point that never materializes.)

I’m not sure if they broadcast live or what, but apparently Jan Cox did hour+ long lectures three times a week for 20 years? More? I never figured out the schedule, but I remember constantly flipping back to the public access station trying to catch it throughout the 90’s. For better or worse, this stuff was probably pretty formative for me. It’s actually pretty culty.

I don’t live there anymore, but this is pretty much what Atlanta in the 80’s and 90’s felt like to me.


This Night Walks thing is blowing my mind.


The idea is probably more interesting than the reality in many cases. Particularly public access TV seems to be more of a urban concept, at least to me.

Around here we had the big three, PBS and eventually Fox, a couple independent stations existed but they were just religious stuff so basically didn’t count. One did eventually go conventional for a few years and were a valuable source of additional weekday morning/afternoon cartoon options for me, but by the early 90s they got gobbled up by the Fox affiliate and basically became a redundancy for us, though each one being in a different city probably did make one more available than the other for some people. This might have been a thing Fox affiliates were just doing in general, sometimes we could snag some North Carolina channels and their Fox affiliate was labelled with dual channels as well.

So the main variance was just in syndicated stuff, which was often mostly the same stuff at different timeslots. Though this wasn’t always the case, like my local stations dropped Exo Squad after the first season so I did my best to get a watchable, though still snowy and sometimes static ridden audio, signal because the NC Fox affiliate had the second. Much finagling with aluminum foil and an array of empty Dr. Pepper cans ensued, but I often had trouble especially as even seasonal concerns also affected the signal. Never could get much watchable in spring and summer.

That is one of the disappointments of the age of digital broadcast signals, nowadays you just either get a clear signal or nothing at all, no getting weak signals. And more annoying sometimes bad weather or something used to make your image quality a bit blurry and such, now your screen goes black or freezes along with the audio and just stutters along and becomes unwatchable. Though on one morning a couple of years ago I did suddenly pick up some NC channels, and while the main channels were on network time and redundant, the subchannels meant there was some completely different stuff, including a channel of Mexican origin. Perfectly clear signal, but after a few hours they vanished and I’ve never picked them up again.


When I was in high school I got a rare and unsolicited opportunity to put something weird on public access TV. Some friends and I had recently collaborated on a school project about Surrealism, and as part of it we’d made a dinky high school attempt at a Surrealist short film. One of those friends I worked with happened to know an extremely ambitious kid at another high school who had his own show on the local public access station, Blab TV in Sarasota, FL. The kid asked us if he could air part of our short during his programming block and we assented. It was pretty cool to watch something I’d created air on TV!

Here’s the bit that aired. It’s about 2 minutes long, and it’s pretty dumb, but I think it’s still fun to watch, and some of it looks kinda cool. We borrowed a bunch of weird biological samples in leaky old jars from our biology teacher and set 'em on a TV in my friend’s back yard and then did a bunch of stop motion animation. This is what you get when you introduce a group of high schoolers to Jan Svankmajer.

The kid who put us on his show? Now he runs the most popular print publication of the ‘dirtbag left’. Which reminds me, I’ve been meaning to subscribe to that thing…