Do you remember back when television would go off at midnight? We sure do! We got curious the other day bout that period of time, so we started to do some research...
The is the famous RCA "Indian Head" television test pattern that many tv stations used in the 1950's and 1960's. Back then (and even through the early 1990s), most television channels simply didn't have enough content to fill up a 24 hour cycle, and even if they did, few people would be up to watch. As such, they would "sign-off" after the day's programming was over, and in its place they would display these "test cards".
We always thought this pattern was just something to show, but evidently it had a purpose: it was used to measure the resolution of the signal and align the receiver to get the best picture!
As you'll see above, each of the elements actually had a purpose. These test signals helped maintain the reception and display quality of the black and white analog televisions.
Here you see 1952 Phillips television displaying another variant of the sign-off card. credit: Ekhard Etzold
In the late 1950s, stations realized that this was valuable space, and they could add their channel names to the cards to get some additional branding, as seen above and below.
And then came the Star Spangled Banner!
When black and white analog televisions gave way to digital, the sign-off cards became unnecessary. And so they thought: What could we show viewers instead of a sign off?
They decided to show a video of a waving American flag and to play the Star Spangled Banner! Most stations started by showing the video, and then going to the test signal, but many just played the video on loop over and over.
Here's an early black and white version of the sign-off showing of the Start Spangled Banner in the 1950s...
In the early 1960s, stations started to get creative with their playing of the Star Spangled Banner, many choosing to show various images of American life with the music playing in the background. Through the 1970's and 1980's, studios experimented with many different forms and formats, but no matter what, this was the sign that kids used to know it was *really* time to go to bed!
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