Monday, April 24, 2006

Midnight on Television

There’s nothing like comparing youthful memories of television with some young 30-something whipper-snapper to remind me exactly how old I am.

I recently discovered that some of my co-workers didn’t realize that tv stations used to play the Star-Spangled Banner every night at midnight. Why would they do that? That’s silly.

These kids grew up with mtv and fifty 24-hour cable channels. Now they have 200 satellite channels but they hardly ever watch any of them live because they TiVO everything. In other words, they have no idea what it was like to watch television in the 1960s.

Forgive me for a few minutes while I address such uninformed citizens and teach them about television at its finest.

When I was growing up, we could receive three television stations. Just three. One for each network. Yes, there were only three networks back then: cbs, nbc, and abc. That is, if you could really consider abc a network.

The evening news came on at 10:00. For the next half-hour, we were treated to a summary of the entire day’s world news in the first 10 minutes. Then there was a smattering of local news. After a commercial, we learned about what the weather was going to be tomorrow. Then 10 minutes of sports, which usually meant finding out whether the Cardinals won or lost that day.

What happened after that depended on what channel you were watching. If it was the nbc channel, you saw an hour and a half of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. If you were watching the cbs channel, it may have been an old movie or some rerun or something. Nobody knows what you watched if you were watching the abc channel, and nobody cared.

That means that all the stations ran out of programming somewhere around midnight. They were done for the day. Some sleepy engineer hung around to make sure the transmitter was still humming. But the news crew had all gone home by then and all the front office guys had left a long time ago.

So when the last minute of programming was done, it was somebody’s job at the tv station to play the Star-Spangled Banner. It was usually a tape of a choir singing — Mormon Tabernacle-style. Or it may have actually been the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I dunno. Or it may have been a military band. Whatever. And it was usually accompanied by a film of a waving American flag.

And then there was an awkward silence. A test pattern may have come on for a few minutes. And then a pop. And then snow.

Then the engineer turned out the lights, locked the door, and went home. About six hours later, the day shift engineer would show up to broadcast the morning farm reports. On nbc stations, that was followed by The Today Show. On cbs stations, it was followed by Captain Kangaroo. Nobody knows what was on the abc stations because nobody watched them.

What is “snow”, you ask? That’s what we called the electronic blizzard that filled the screen accompanied with white noise. I know most of you people under 40 have never seen static on a tv screen. Well, that’s the stuff you get when you send a tv signal over the airwaves and it bounces off of the local water tower and you get a ghost image and...

No, no, tv doesn’t have to come over a cable. You could actually get a tv signal from the atmosphere. I mean without a dish. It didn’t come from outer space; it came from a tall, skinny tower that is usually visible from the interstate. But you needed an antenna as large as your kitchen table which looked like a bunch of coat-hangers that fell out of the sky into a symmetrical triangular pattern.

This is all very confusing for you, isn’t it?

Wait until I tell you about the days when CDs were twelve-inches wide. And black.


Pastordeshon said...

You neglected to mention the footage of the USAF Thunderbirds or USN Blue Angels.

Anonymous said...

I loved the channel that signed off with the poem about flying that ended with the line about "touching the face of God", gave me goose bumps!