Mental Floss

6 Big Questions about your Television

Kara Kovalchik
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This week we take a break from your regularly scheduled programming and peek at the nutsy/boltsy side of television. From why we have the Emergency Broadcast System to who started Closed Captioning, these are all the TV questions that weren't answered by your instructional manual.

1. Why do we have the Emergency Broadcast System? (And why's it always testing us?)

The United States was fretting over the possibility of a sneak attack by those pesky Soviets in 1951, so President Truman announced the launch of CONELRAD, or the Control of Electromagnetic Radiation system of emergency notification. The fear was that Russia might hone in on American radio signals and use them as beacons for their atomic missiles. Under CONELRAD, all radio stations would cease broadcasting after an alert from the White House. Listeners were then urged to tune in to either 640 or 1240 on their AM dials for further information. By 1963, the Soviet Union had switched to ballistic missiles, so CONELRAD was retired and replaced by the Emergency Broadcast System. The EBS was a relay system, with a primary station receiving an official alert from Washington, which would then pass it on to secondary stations. The primary station sent the Alert Tone, which consisted of sine waves of 853 and 960 Hz, and then TV and radio stations across the U.S. automatically stopped local broadcasting and re-broadcast the emergency information being sent from the source. By FCC law, all radio and television stations were required to perform a random "Weekly Transmission Test Of The Attention Signal and Test Script" ("This is only a test. Had this been a real emergency"¦").

The EBS was replaced in 1997 by the Emergency Alert Service, which allows broadcast stations, satellite radio, cable systems, DBS systems, participating satellite companies, and other services to receive emergency information automatically, even if their facilities are unattended.

2. Who's behind Public Service Announcements?

The Ad Council was formed in 1942 when a group of Madison Avenue types wanted to contribute to the war effort without actually leaving their cushy advertising jobs. The result was a series of ads encouraging Americans to buy war bonds. They were so successful that President Roosevelt encouraged the organization to continue their work after the war had ended. How does it work? A non-profit or government organization (such as the Boys Clubs of America or United Cerebral Palsy) approaches the Ad Council with a cause that needs support. The Council farms out the job to an advertising agency, which provides its creative and production work free of charge.

The people that appear in PSA spots, whether celebrities or civilians, get no pay and no residuals for their work.

The Council then approaches different media outlets "“ radio, TV and even the Internet "“ to get the ads placed (again, free of charge). The Ad Council requires that PSAs promote positive social change in such areas as the quality of life for children, preventative health, education, community well being, and environmental preservation.

3. How did Closed Captioning start?

Closed captioning was demonstrated at the First National Conference on Television for the Hearing Impaired in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1971, using programming and equipment created expressly for the conference.  A second demonstration was presented by ABC and the National Bureau of Standards in 1972 at Gallaudet University, this time showing captions embedded on an episode of The Mod Squad.  One year earlier, The French Chef on PBS became the first program using "open" captions, that is, the captions were burned right onto the video and were visible on any TV (not just on those with special CC equipment) and could not be turned off.

When searching for a better captioning solution, the National Bureau of Standards happened to notice that there were several bands of the television signal that weren't being used.  At first the NBS toyed with the idea of using it for sending the precise time on a nationwide basis, thus eliminating the need to dial the local 555-1212 number. That plan fizzled, so it was decided to use the signal to send captioned text instead. Closed captioning using the "Line 21" method was kicked off in March 1980; the first programs to use the service were The Wonderful World of Disney (NBC), The ABC Sunday Night Movie (ABC), and Masterpiece Theatre (PBS). Two years later the 54th Annual Academy Awards became the first program to utilize real-time captioning.

4. What is UHF?

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5. Why are ads so much louder than the show?

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6. What Used to Happen at the End of a Broadcast Day

Once upon a time, before some marketing genius figured out that the idle overnight hours could be sold to infomercial folks, TV stations signed off at night (usually around one or two o'clock in the morning). Even though FCC regulations only required that stations identify themselves by call sign, city of license and channel number prior to sign-off, most stations made a mini-production number of their farewell message. Each station had its own trademark "good night," which entertained insomniacs, graveyard shift workers and folks with pneumonia who could only "sleep" upright in a living room chair because laying prone led to bouts of paroxysmal coughing, and the TV was their only friend while the rest of their family taunted them from the distance with their peaceful, slumbering snores"¦ not that I'm bitter"¦ Sorry, I got sidetracked. Anyway, traditional sign-offs included not only station information, but also some sort of "sermonette" or spiritual message, followed the playing of the National Anthem accompanied by appropriately inspirational film footage. A test pattern would appear onscreen for a short period of time before the picture would dissolve into "snow," which sent some of us reaching for the radio dial and thanking the heavens that at least disc jockeys worked all night.

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