Across the pond
14 Jun 2001 1 comment. tbs.pm/1840
I became interested in local television presentation whilst growing up in the Midwestern United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I believe I was still sleeping in a crib when I was treated to my first closedown on our CBS affiliate, WSAW – it may even have still been known as WSAU then – on channel 7 in Wausau, Wisconsin.
In my memory, it consisted of a cartoon drawing of a knight on a horse, watching the sunset with a large stylized ’7′ on one side of the screen. The station call letters were above the 7, the name of the city below it, and at the bottom of the screen were the words “Good Night”.
In later years, the knight, named Sir Seven, would be shown standing instead of mounted with the 7 painted on his shield. The phrase “GOOD NIGHT” would show up in larger capital letters where the 7 once had been, and “WSAW-TV Wausau” would be at the top of the screen.
To go with this closedown slide was a recorded announcement. I couldn’t understand all the words at the time, but it was a deep, loud, stern sounding voice that I felt was talking directly to me, so naturally I would try and hide under the covers from the TV’s evil glare.
After the slide and voice-over, they would play a film of the national anthem, consisting of scenes such as a marching band playing and fighter jets flying in formation over mountains. After the anthem would come the really scary part as they faded back to the “GOOD NIGHT” slide for a few more seconds in silence – I felt the TV was looking at me one last time to make sure I had gone to bed – then click to white noise.
Startups on channel 7 were a much more pleasant affair. They would show a “GOOD MORNING” slide similar to the one they had closed down with, but the announcer had a far less stern voice.
After reciting some technical information on the transmitter and its location with more detail than the ITV equivalents, they would have color bars and music for 15 minutes before their first program.
My first real exposure to the British style of presentation came around 1989 or 1990, seeing the spoof continuity announcements over the blue-on-black BBC-1 “COLOUR” globe on ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ repeats on cable television. Later I found more examples on other shows such as ‘The Young Ones’ and ‘Alexei Sayle’s Stuff’, and learned about something called Ceefax and Oracle, the likes of which never existed in America.
Our cable systems usually carry a local community bulletin board channel that cycles through various advertisements and local events in a teletext fashion, but you can’t punch a number into your remote control to select which page to look at.
From time to time I saw production frontcaps and endcaps from companies such as Thames, Yorkshire and LWT, and I had vaguely heard of something called ITV, but I didn’t know they were part of it.
A year or two ago I happened upon the MHP, mb21 and other associated websites, and was finally able to put all this into a more coherent picture of television in the UK. I found RealPlayer clips of various closedowns, and also learned how prevalent on-screen clocks and in-vision continuity once were.
I’ve never seen analog clocks as the main focus of the screen on American TV. In-vision continuity I have only seen on specialty cable channels such as MTV (with such memorable “VJs” as Martha Quinn, Adam Curry, and Downtown Julie Brown) and The Weather Channel (where the meteorologists double as presenters).
UK television provided imaginative test cards with photos of people on them rather than just color bars. And, perhaps most importantly for young kids growing up, the closedowns were different from anything I had seen before.
They were much warmer and friendlier, with a live announcer, sometimes even in vision. Instead of taking an authoritative tone and giving you nightmares about the national anthem for life, they would be like an old friend, wishing you a pleasant night, and gently fading to black.
Sadly, neither country’s presentation is what it used to be. Even in the US, where cable has enjoyed widespread popularity for years and isn’t a new young threat as in the UK, the networks are suddenly rushing from one program to the next.
Not content with slapping permanent graphics over the screen they have taken to squishing and speeding up end credits so you can’t read them, and eschewing regional identity in favor of the national network branding, so instead of “KXAS-TV Channel 5 Dallas/Fort Worth” we have “NBC 5″.
Even the stations that haven’t yet succumbed to the network branding are no longer the same; instead of WSAW’s “Sir Seven” character and the stylized number 7, we now have “NewsChannel 7″ with a plainer 7.
But, I suppose, we’ll always have our memories of how presentation used to be and, thanks to the internet, the opportunity to share in those memories again.