Another one of those bits of TV history I’ll bet most of us never knew about: David Brough and his Northern Access Network, a group of 30 or so illegal northern Ontario television stations that ran on videotaped programming from Canadian and American channels that he could pull in from Toronto. Why? Because, as the report puts it, “Until Brough came to town, there were 12 channels of snow — and the CBC.”
In places that only got one TV channel — English CBC — the Northern Access Network gave viewers a glimpse of something more.
For them, that meant a low-power station with a roster of TV shows and movies that had already aired on the CTV and Global networks, curated by a former children’s entertainer.
In the late 1970s, entrepreneur David Brough owned and operated dozens of “flea-powered” TV stations in remote northern Ontario towns.
CBC current affairs program The Kowalski/Loeb Report took a ride in Brough’s Winnebago en route to one such station to find out how he did it.
“Without permission, Brough records programs from every TV network, Canadian and American,” explained host Henry Kowalski. “He constructs videotapes that are ten hours long.”
The tapes were sent several at a time on a route that took them from one station to another. They included the commercials, often for local businesses, that had aired as part of the broadcast in Toronto where the tapes were made.
Brough had permission for none of this — not from the TV networks whose shows he was recording for rebroadcast, nor from Canada’s broadcast regulator, the CRTC.
It was a functioning network of 30 micro-stations that were each helmed by a local manager and supported with cash contributions by each community.
The whole thing is quite interesting, but I think this right here is my favourite part.
When the RCMP and the department of communications tried to forcibly shut down Brough’s first operation, in Pickle Lake, Ont., they were thwarted by loyal viewers.
“There was an interesting confrontation between a few dozen miners who were down at the local bars and found out that this was happening,” said Brough. “They politely informed [the authorities] that if they tried to take away their TV station, they probably wouldn’t get out of town.”
Keep in mind that this is the 1970s, not the 1870s.
Brough did end up getting some of his stations licensed, but the network eventually faded away as the major players started serving more communities and he turned his attention to other things.