Saturday, 10 April 2021

How the Internet Gave Us Access to Obscure Television

Up until the late-1990s, if you missed something on television then it was unlikely you were going to see it again any time soon. Even if you had - and I understand younger readers' horror at this proposition - managed to position yourself in front of your television at a set time, you would need a hardy memory to remember it over the years. Naturally, you could have recorded it onto a video tape, but this wasn't a luxury many of us took advantage of regularly. And, of course, there was always the likelihood that you would record over it with something else - most commonly an entry from the James Bond franchise.

But what does this mean? Well, aside from a plethora of home recordings of Live and Let Die haunting many an attic, it means that many television programmes became ephemera as soon as the end credits rolled. At least, it did until the dawn of the internet. The opportunities of the information superhighway weren't entirely clear at its outset, but everyone and their dog knew it would be an amazing adventure. And, once the initial dalliances in online porn and bizarre, early memes had quickly been exhausted, it was revealed that nearly everything else could be found online. Obscure, forgotten and hard to get hold of television was also there.

It's a situation which, just as with every other aspect of the web, has changed beyond all recognition since those early days of Ask Jeeves, Altavista and the screeching, anguished tones of a dial-up modem. Luckily, I managed to dip my toe into the world of obscure and, at the time, hard to get hold of television early on. Therefore, I'm going to take a quick look at how the internet has given us access to an almost obscene amount of obscure and archived television.

Tape Trading in the Early Days

Connecting to the internet in the early days was far from the seamless experience we're blessed with today. Dial-up modems had to, quite literally, dial-up telephone networks and then make a series of excruciating squealing noises known as a handshake. Once the connection was established, data could start being received and sent. It took, from memory, just over a minute from hitting the dial button to actually getting online. If you were lucky. Anyway, it was mildly time consuming, but it was nothing compared to the snail-like download speeds on offer. With a massive amount of pride, I was able to, in the year 2000, boast an average download speed of 4.5kb per second. Most of my peers could only rustle up 3.5kb per second, so I felt like a king. But, ultimately, it made little difference. Downloading took FOREVER.

A three-minute pop song would, on average, take around 20 minutes to download with the speeds on offer in the UK at the start of the Millennium. Please note, I didn't once carry out an illegal download on Napster like an excitable pirate - all details come from my more dubious friends. Anyway, downloading a three-minute song was just about tolerable. But downloading any sort of video took a lifetime. Sure, there were the occasional offerings of RealMedia files to download which weren't overly large, but they were atrocious. Watching these highly compressed videos - which looked abysmal even shrunk down into RealPlayer's miniscule display - was a thankless task. All the digital revolution provided in those early days was a series of headaches brought on from squinting at blocky videos.

Thankfully, the analogue world was still alive and brought some level of respite. And it was all down to VHS tapes. Since the dawn of home recording in the late-1970s, an underground network of tape trading had been active. It was a scene which proved most popular amongst fans of Doctor Who, with all manner of deals taking place round the back of convention halls for third generation copies of The Deadly Assassin. In the year 2000, almost every home in the UK (and indeed around the world) still had a VHS player in their lounge. Tape trading, however, required contacts and connections. These assets weren't readily available in "the real world" but the internet brought these trading circles into the comfort of our homes.

But let's just rewind a second. It's Friday 11th November 1994 and I'm watching what, unbeknownst to myself, will be the last ever episode of Knightmare. I later learn that it's been cancelled as, according to ITV executives, children's television was now being watched mostly by younger children. No, it doesn't make any sense, but that's the politics of television for you. Anyway, the years passed by and I regularly reminisced with my friends (or late at night in my head) about the exploits of Treguard et al. There was no way that I would ever forget it, but it was unlikely that I would ever see it again. It was repeated on The Sci-Fi Channel in 1995, but I didn't have satellite television then. Anyway, in 1999, we got THE INTERNET (it was always capitalised back then) and I decided to see if there was anything online about Knightmare. And there was, a whole website dedicated to it (it's still going at knightmare.com)

The website was packed full of Knightmare trivia and, amazingly, some clips of the series which could be streamed. These were, as mentioned above, typically late 1990s RealPlayer standard and didn't make for the easiest of watches. But, tantalisingly, there was also a message board on the website. And people were trading tapes of Knightmare. I didn't have anything to trade, but one of the traders was happy to sell me tapes of the series. I went for the complete series four and, a week or so later, two VHS tapes turned up containing third generation copies of Knightmare. It cost me, I think, about £12 and the rush of nostalgia was intense. And it wouldn't have happened without the internet. It was still, with hindsight, a rather slow process and the picture quality - regularly shifting from colour to black and white - was poor. But it was an exciting start and it was only going to get better.

The Emergence of Torrents, YouTube and Streaming

I wasn't an avid tape trader in those early days, but I do remember that Ebay provided another shot in the arm for obtaining rare slices of television. Again, it was thanks to VHS tapes. All manner of television programmes were popping up in the listings and, assuming they weren't pulled due to copyright reasons, you could take your pick of some real gems. I remember, around late 2003, purchasing a copy of some studio sessions for The Young Ones. It was the kind of footage that would have previously been impossible to get hold of. But here it was. All thanks to a seller in, well, I can't remember, but probably somewhere like Saffron Walden But, by this point, broadband was starting to take off in the UK and this was creating exciting opportunities.

Torrents were, in 2003, something that most people associated with water. But, online, people were eulogising digital torrents as the next big thing in file-sharing. These torrents allowed files to be shared rapidly by multiple users known as seeders. And, with internet speeds being significantly upgraded, the ability to transfer large files was becoming easier and quicker. Accordingly, torrents were the perfect solution for sharing digital copies of television programmes. This led to member-only torrent sites such as UK Nova forming and allowing members to freely offer up their collections of television programmes.

UK Nova launched in 2003 and ran until 2012 when it was finally closed for good due to crushing legal issues relating to copyright. It was an early poster boy for this world of illicit (no matter how much you dress it up, it's still illegal) sharing and, nearly a decade on, people still talk about it in hushed tones. The wealth of material on offer was astonishing. And it wasn't just the well-known, big hitters that were available. Some painfully obscure material was on offer. 1960s sitcoms jostled alongside 1980s post-apocalyptic dramas and children's programmes were plentiful. It was a TV anorak's dream. And, thankfully, its legacy lives on. A whole host of similar members-only sites have appeared in the last decade, you just need to know where to look. And be lucky enough to get an invite.

Perhaps the biggest game changer in the way we access old television online was delivered when YouTube became a thing. With internet speeds rapidly increasing (almost by the day) it was now viable to provide seamless viewing experiences online. And, best of all, anyone could upload to YouTube. This coincided with a small boom in sales of VHS/DVD combi machines and meant that many people were digitising their old video collections. And this led to many archive programmes being uploaded to YouTube, a practice which continues today. In many cases, copyright is a major stumbling block in these situations. But, luckily, the British broadcasters don't seem too bothered about obscure, uncommercial content being uploaded - at the worst they'll slap an advert at the start of it to monetise it. Don't try uploading something that has already had a commercial release, though, as the algorithms will detect this and instantly disable the video.

The success of YouTube demonstrated the public appetite for streaming and paved the way for sites such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video to launch. These platforms, however, are very different to YouTube. Gone are the user uploads and, in their place, are massive commercial interests. You won't find any BBC continuity or old ITV news reports here. Instead, their archived television sections mostly contain programmes you have already owned on both VHS and DVD. BritBox, after an uninspiring launch, has become more interesting with available content including, for example, the very first episodes of Puddle Lane and Murphy's Mob. The BBC's iPlayer is also to be applauded for containing some obscure gems - take a look at these amazing episodes of Just Another Day - amongst the more contemporary programming.

Final Thoughts

The truth is that obscure television is obscure for a reason: not that many people are interested in it. The readers of Curious British Telly may get highly excited over the prospects of watching episodes of Ragtime from 1973, but the rest of the population don't. They want quick and easy access to programmes such as Fawlty Towers, Absolutely Fabulous and Downton Abbey. And it's a good thing they do - a world full of television anoraks would be dreadfully one note. Luckily, from the earliest days of tape trading through to torrents and culminating in our holy land of YouTube, we have been catered for and, quite frankly, spoiled. This is mostly thanks to the technological achievements of the internet, but this has been underpinned by human connections.

The internet has always thrived upon human connections and its these interactions which have allowed so much material to make its way online. Communities, such as UK Nova, have been formed and granted users to come together and share their archives. Indeed, through running this blog, I've had communications from numerous people kindly wanting to share footage from programmes which meet the Curious British Telly criteria. If it wasn't for these connections then this blog would probably a tenth of the size it is. Some may say that would be a more preferable situation, but that's by the by. The fact that we can log on to the internet and, within seconds, be viewing an episode of Sebastian the Incredible Dog would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. But now it's reality.

Most of this article is based upon my own experiences, so can't be classed as an absolute history on the way the internet has helped to bring obscure television online. Therefore, I would love to hear about your own experiences in tracking down and digesting archive material online. Please leave a comment below!

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