Start the USA 

14 June 2001

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is more than 20 years old. The formatting may be strange, links broken and/or images missing. The text may have been superseded by subsequent events or later research.

At one time, television stations in the USA, like ITV contractors in the UK, had daily “start-up” (or “sign-on” as we call them here in the States) routines. But the traditional sign-on routines have all but vanished with the advent of 24-hour television.

In some respects, sign-ons of TV stations in the USA were similar to start-ups of ITV regions. But there were a few differences. By following one station’s “sign-on” routine from my childhood (the late 1960s), we can see how sign-ons of US stations and start-ups of ITV contractors were similar and different.

Both procedures would start with a test card (or a test pattern as we refer to them as). You wouldn’t see the “Picasso” test card of the ITV, nor testcards D, E, or in later years, F.

You would likely see a group of concentric circles in the center of the screen, a large circle on the outer portion of the screen, and four wedges of lines, coming from the top, bottom, right-hand-side and left-hand-side, connecting the concentric circles in the middle to the circle on the test pattern’s outer perimeter.

You might see the image of an Indian head on the upper center part of the screen. You might see the station’s call letters, channel number and city on the test pattern.

In any event, one would usually hear a continuous, monotonous 1,000-cycle tone for as long as the test pattern would be seen on the screen. Some stations might offer some variety by using recorded music for the last few minutes that a test pattern was shown in place of tone.

Then, about three minutes before the day’s first program, the test pattern and tone would disappear. You would see a film showing the American flag, sometimes with majestic outdoor scenes, or landmarks in Washington, D.C., or with US Air Force jet fighters. You would hear “The Star-Spangled Banner”, the American national anthem.

Once the anthem ended, the good part came. You would see a slide showing the station’s call letters, channel number, location and logo. As most American TV stations broadcast only on a single transmitter (as opposed to the multiple transmitters of many ITV contractors), the announcement would go into much more detail about the television station than a start-up in the UK ever would.

One station’s sign-on announcement in the late 1960s went:

“Good morning. You are watching WBZ-TV, Boston, Massachusetts. WBZ-TV broadcasts on channel 4, by authority of the Federal Communications Commission. WBZ-TV is owned and operated by the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company. WBZ-TV’s studios and offices are located at 1170 Soldiers Field Road, Boston, Massachusetts 02134. WBZ-TV broadcasts with an effective radiated visual power of 100,000 watts from a transmitter and antenna located in Needham, Massachusetts. WBZ-TV is an affiliate of the NBC television network. Some of WBZ-TV’s programming is mechanically reproduced on film or videotape. WBZ-TV now begins its broadcast day”.

Once the sign-on announcement was made, the day’s first program would be transmitted.

WBZ-TV is an actual television station in Boston; the information in the sample announcement above was correct in the late 1960s.

Today, WBZ-TV still broadcasts on channel 4; its studios are still at Soldiers’ Field Road in Boston, and the station still transmits from Needham. However, WBZ-TV switched affiliation to the CBS network on January 2, 1995.

The nuances may be different – Americans call it sign-on instead of start-up, and use different kinds of testcards, calling them test patterns – but the ways American TV stations and ITV contractors began their broadcast day prior to the era of 24-hour television broadcasting turn out to have been pretty universal.

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