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Bring back test patterns

By Michael M. Bates
web posted December 15, 2008

The head of NBC told an investor conference Monday that his network may have to cut back on its programming.  “Can we continue to program 22 hours of prime-time?  Three of our competitors don’t.  Can we afford to program seven nights a week?  One of our competitors doesn’t,” he said.

His candid admission put me to dreaming of an appetizing if improbable prospect: That some television stations might actually go off the air, at least for the night.

Many baby boomers grew up before network and cable stations operated 24 hours a day.  Not only that; most of us actually survived.

Much of today’s late night/early morning programming may be slightly less than scintillating (ever catch Bobby Vinton peddling the “Lifetime of Romance” oldies collection?), but most TV outlets refuse to go off the air, even for a few hours.

Reno's KOLO TV wraps up its day back in 1986 with John Wayne

A small highlight of youth – at least my youth - was staying up late enough to see test patterns right before TV stations shut down.  Often, an announcer would mellifluously advise viewers that the channel was about to conclude its broadcast day.  Sometimes viewers were assured that the station subscribed to the standards of the National Association of Broadcasters.

The National Anthem was usually played, occasionally accompanied by film of jets streaking across the sky.  Other times, pictures of the Founding Fathers or other significant American figures or monuments were presented.  The test pattern would then be displayed for a while, followed by a squealing sound, and finally several hours of static before the station’s next broadcast day began.

The good part is you didn’t have to stay up most of the night to catch a test pattern.  The Chicago Tribune’s archives for December 11, 1963 illustrate what late evening TV was like back when you had five, count ‘em five, whole stations from which to choose in the metropolitan area.

The PBS channel was the first to shut down for the evening.  Channel 11’s last program was the audience-pleasing “PTA Bulletin Board” at 11:45 PM.  

Channel 7, the ABC affiliate, was next.  Its final offering, at 12:15 AM, was listed as the 1940 movie “Green Hill” starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.  In looking up the year that film was made, I found the real title was “Green Hell.”  Did the newspaper merely make a typo or was this a small concession to the sensibilities of the time?

WGN Channel 9 wrapped up with a rerun of “Highway Patrol” at 12:20 AM and “5 Minutes to Live By” at 12:50 AM.  I believe that final show was of a religious nature and may typically have had a clergyman delivering a short homily.  Programs like that helped stations meet the Federal Communications Commission’s requirement to operate in the public interest.

Also at 12:20 AM, NBC affiliate Channel 5 aired its last program for the day.  The 1952 film noir “Kansas City Confidential” starred John Payne and Preston Foster.

Channel 2, the CBS affiliate, kept its audience up the latest with the “Late, Late Show,” featuring an old movie each night.  At 12:25 AM, the film was 1939’s “Wife, Husband and Friend” with Loretta Young and Warner Baxter.  “Meditation,” another five-minute spiritual show, completed the station’s broadcast day at 2:05 AM.

And then, after the sign-off announcements, the National Anthems, the test patterns, the squealing, there was the blissful sound of . . . nothing being transmitted.  In a few hours, the familiar test pattern would again be displayed as the station was about to start broadcasting.

If you were sick or couldn’t sleep, you didn’t turn on the television during the night.  You’d maybe find something to read, something that might even exercise your brain.

Now we head for the remote, mainly because something is always on.  It may be a waste of time, but it’s always on. ESR

This Mike Bates column appeared in the December 11, 2008 Reporter Newspapers.


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