Twitch is a beast of the present tense. On average, in a single second, the company’s servers broadcast over a dozen hours of livestreaming content—gameplay, music, talk shows, people eating—out into the internet ether. All but a sliver of it will soon be gone, irrecoverable; even with archiving enabled, anything not clipped or saved as a highlight will vanish after, at most, 60 days. Games more than a few years old struggle to muster the tens of thousands of viewers needed to make the homepage, and most new releases lucky enough to enter the top 25 at launch will tumble out within a week. What matters is what’s right now.
But on the fringes of Twitch, there’s a group of streamers who use the platform for a decidedly different purpose, one at odds not just with this ethos of the present, but also with the site’s terms of service and with copyright law. These channels dedicate themselves to the very verboten practice of broadcasting classic media. Risking bans and lawsuits, with little to no hope of any serious financial gain, they curate and remix the television, movies, and oddities of yesteryear into pirate TV stations for the 21st century.
And they do it all, it turns out, for very straightforward reasons.
“Honestly, all I was doing here [on my channel] was sharing an escape routine that doesn’t involve alcohol or drugs,” Cartoon1Like everyone who spoke to me for this story, Cartoon asked to be credited by an online handle to preserve his anonymity., the owner of one such channel, told me. “Rough workday or just need to break away for a bit and remember the careless times of being in our youth? It’s a good feeling and stirs some memories of old times up, which I enjoy.”
Another streamer, The VHS, told me his channel actually had its origins in the offline world. “It started with a couple of guys just sharing VHS tapes at work,” he said. Like Cartoon, he views what he does as a chance for viewers to get away from the stresses of real life. “Everything is escapism, but specifically reliving your childhood.”
I can relate. My journey into adopting Twitch as my new stop for retro entertainment began a few years back, when a friend showed me a YouTube channel that uploaded TV commercials from the ’70s, ’80s, and my preferred ’90s. As someone who hasn’t had cable in a decade and a half, I’d forgotten what seeing traditional advertisements was like. I found them endearing, so I sought out similar material elsewhere. Eventually, I stumbled onto a Twitch channel that hosted long, multiple-hour streams showing ads alongside entire shows from decades past, a steady dopamine drip of old memories rushing back to me as new again.
And then, after a couple weeks, just as I’d started to speak up in chat, it was all gone—shut down for violating the terms of service. I should have expected it, but I was still a little heartbroken. There goes my fun. But with the help of that same friend, I soon found a worthy replacement, a stream of classic MTV programming. Then I discovered another, dedicated just to Beavis and Butthead. And others: early-2000s cartoons, classic sitcoms, old Photoshop tutorial videos, retro Weather Channel broadcasts. I was enthralled.
While nostalgia like mine is a big motivation behind these streams, it’s not the only one. For Forgotten_VCR, another channel owner, it’s also about rebellion. In his normal life, Forgotten_VCR is an academic. On Twitch, he streams some of the strangest clips I’ve seen: ridiculous acting, mysterious ninjas, old wrestling promos, killer Thai crocodiles, and, of course, J-pop. He seems proud to stand out. “I grew up in a time where media was entirely dictated by industry gatekeepers,” he told me. “I became very proficient in trying to break beyond sort of what MTV, Rolling Stone, and those entities were pushing, striving to find things outside of that bubble.”
Fellow streamer The VHS cited a similar pushback among his viewers. “People aren’t happy where media is going and they’re turning back the other direction,” he said.
“There is an appeal to it, also, that a human being is curating this, and it’s not a YouTube algorithm,” Forgotten_VCR said. He compared himself to a DJ, able to feed off the response of the crowd to remix culture in real time. “What’s cool is you guys remember things, like the Trigger Boss,” he said, referencing an oddity from a children’s PSA video about asthma featuring a rapping aardvark and some strange stereotypes. “Now I’m to the point where I’ve built this weird universe of characters and I can start bringing them in randomly.”
Judging from my experience, the appeal of these retro streams is only growing. As I’ve kept tuning in, I’ve noticed that many of the chats have begun to double or triple in size That’s particularly true of the channels whose owners participate in chat and interact with their viewers.
“I don’t just put the tapes on and walk away,” Forgotten_VCR told me. “I like reading what all of you guys say.” Whether it’s starting Discord servers to let fans socialize outside of Twitch, helping others find the content they’re looking for, or just being present when the content is airing, retro streamers can, and often do, build dedicated fan communities around their channels. Whether it’s sports entertainment, Super Sentai reruns, or odd PSA videos, there’s an undeniable appeal to watching something old and strange for the very first time alongside a group of likeminded strangers.
“I didn’t think it would attract this many people, but I’m glad it did,” Cartoon said. “It’s nice to know there are a lot of others like me.”
In The VHS’s eyes, “the community decides what exists and what does not.” Right now, he said, “[They want] retro content. The people want that to exist!”
The people, perhaps, but not Twitch. The site’s terms of service explicitly forbid rebroadcasting material without authorization of the original copyright holders. In other words, unless these retro channels get the okay to run every clip they show, they’re in clear violation of the rules. Indeed, most of the streamers I reached out to for this piece have experienced bans already.
Forgotten_VCR’s first ban came when he tried to take advantage of a new trend. At the time, Twitch users had misappropriated the Twitch category for Valve’s collectible-card-game-turned-punchline Artifact, using it to stream pretty much everything but actual Artifact gameplay. It started off innocently enough—dumb things like streaming the movie Shrek at one-tenth the normal speed or playing music videos—but soon the Artifact hijackers were pushing the limits of good taste. Clips of a streamer who’d been caught masturbating in front of his viewers. Straight-up pornography. Even footage of the 2019 shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Forgotten_VCR wasn’t doing anything so perverse—just using the Artifact category to showcase some of his usual compilations in the hopes of attracting some new viewers, of riding the wave. But the more serious offenders attracted the attention of Twitch moderators, and he got swept up in a ban wave instead. “It was a dumb move on my behalf,” he said.
After the ban, he thought he was done—it’d just been “a fun experiment”—but something convinced him to come back. “I started getting messages on Twitch and Twitter. People went out of their way to contact me,” he said. Apparently, his brief debut on the platform had left an impression. “I was surprised that people even noticed I was gone. I had no subscribers, was making no money at that time.”
Though all of the streamers know they’re at risk of a ban, Forgotten_VCR framed what he does as “an interesting kind of gray area.” He said many retro streamers aren’t broadcasting high-profile content, but more niche stuff that’s largely been abandoned by its original creators. “Even if it has rights associated with it, it isn’t things that are being utilized,” he said.
Admittedly, the lines do seem somewhat blurred these days. A large number of streamers choose to broadcast in Twitch’s Just Chatting category, which doesn’t require any gameplay or specific activity. A fair number of these streamers will show clips from YouTube—obviously a rebroadcast of content someone else owns—seemingly without penalty. Selective enforcement means that channels can survive by not attracting too much attention to their rule-breaking.
The VHS even claimed that Twitch employees have, for philosophical reasons, actually helped him avoid a ban. “I’ve had Twitch staff in my channel, talking to me, giving me advice, like how to stay under the radar,” he said. “There’s a lot of Twitch staff like me and you. There’s certain Twitch staff that appreciate what we do here, as far as historical preservation… There’s Twitch people that protect me, protect other people.”
Forgotten_VCR hasn’t gotten the same kind of overt support, though he has received notes on how to keep his content above board. “I was told that I need to make things more transformative,” he said. He followed up to ask how, in concrete terms, he could accomplish this, but the staffers couldn’t help. “You know the nature of Twitch. Because I’m not a partner, because I don’t make big money, I’m kind of always at risk.”
Bans aren’t the only potential pitfall. Given that these channels run on old content, there’s always the risk that the well will eventually run dry, but none of the streamers I spoke with were worried about running out of fresh content. Cartoon said that not only does he keep finding new material he wants to expose his audience to, but he’s also discovered some personal favorites along the way, like the animated Dungeons & Dragons series that originally ran from 1983 to ’85.
So how do these maestros get all of the good television? Much of what these channels broadcast comes from the streamers’ personal collections. “I get ninety percent of my content off of VHS tapes I own,” The VHS said.
Collecting videotapes is an increasingly popular hobby—and not just for the love of the format. “There were these wretched and sometimes brilliant home independent works that you could only find on VHS,” said Forgotten_VCR, citing Godfrey Ho’s kung fu films as one example. Collecting and digitizing physical media, then, can also serve as an act of preservation.
“There’s a lot of content that has been removed from the internet. I can’t find it. It’s gone,” The VHS said.
MTV’s Beavis and Butthead is one prominent example of a show that is essentially impossible to purchase in its original form. While the narrative segments remain mostly intact on streaming platforms, many of the original music videos the boys would watch and crack jokes over have been cut out due to copyright issues. “Beavis and Butthead are the original streamers,” The VHS said, adding that it’s important to see the untouched original episodes without any missing content. People collect old media, in his eyes, because they’re “trying to rebuild things: Nickelodeon, MTV, sneaking down to see HBO after your parents are in bed.”
Tapping into that past requires that the streams feel authentic, true to our memories of the past. The hard cuts and tracking lines of VHS tapes do seem to lend a certain credibility, proof the content you’re watching isn’t just ones and zeroes on a hard drive. It has existed in physical space over time, has aged. Forgotten_VCR compared the appeal of channels like his to listening to a vinyl record rather than just pulling up the same music on Spotify. It’s more dynamic, more personal, he said.
The right choice of content itself can amplify this effect, as well. Often, the schlockier the better. “I think because everything now is so branded and similar that a trend I’ve even noticed is that low production value somehow in people’s minds now equals authenticity,” Forgotten_VCR said. In his view, the influx of money and sponsorship to platforms like YouTube and Twitch has made it hard to trust that what we’re watching comes from a genuine place. “Now we’re in a world where we’re not sure if someone’s being organic, because we’re aware of Twitch acting and we’re aware of people crafting personas, and you’re just trying to sell me makeup. And I think that getting away from all of that and just returning to the original burning fire in a box, that’s appealing to people who are sick of just being marketed to or influenced constantly.”
Then again, retro streams have already had a taste of corporate appropriation, albeit in a legally sanitized form. Shout Factory TV has used Twitch to show material from its catalog, including episodes of ReBoot and Mystery Science Theater 3000. Several wrestling groups, including Impact! Wrestling, have set up channels to air their products 24/7. Even Twitch itself has hosted Watch Parties where chats can view and discuss material from Amazon Prime Instant Video without fear of breaking the rules. Perhaps as the forbidden becomes mainstream the need for pirate broadcasts will fade away.
Regular users have also exploited the trend, jumping on the retro bandwagon temporarily to boost their channels’ numbers. They’ll stream episodes of Dragon Ball Z or movies to get a boost in followers, but then switch to a regular gaming channel once they feel they’ve inflated their numbers enough.
Temporary or otherwise, The VHS said he thinks retro streams will continue to proliferate, because a platform like Twitch is ultimately driven by viewer demand. Cartoon was less sure—he’d initially been unaware there were even other streams like his out there.
Forgotten_VCR volunteered a deeper perspective. “In the context of what media once looked like, we’re at this really interesting precipice where independent creators are now the gatekeepers, and they have a lot of control of [our] perceptions and [can] influence and the way that we view culture,” he said. “The thing that scares me is when all of these wonderful independent creators sell out, because that’s how they’re going to remain successful.”
But until the paradigm shifts again, I’ll keep tuning in. As long as there’s a cartoon turtle yelling “Cowabunga,” as long as Al Bundy is berating his family over some new harebrained scheme, as long as mixtapes are exposing me to insane new video relics, these Twitch channels will be my preferred television culture. Why watch someone talking in front of a camera when I can watch my own past instead?
Header image credit: Josh Harmon for EGM; Twitch logo property of Twitch Interactive
Writing from a basement in Silent Hill, Wilds is one who draws his inspiration for writing on things like having never beaten Battletoads, errant commas, and old cartoons that only received one season. He has penned words for sites like Playboy, Polygon, Unwinnable / Exploits, and Paste. He’s best found on Twitter @StephenWilds.