Growing up in front of the box 

14 June 2001 tbs.pm/1644

I started becoming aware of the flickering “eye” in the corner of the room when I was about four, in the mid sixties. I became quite fascinated with the medium, probably too much so.

Growing up in the Midwest, in southeast Iowa, my hometown was on the fringes of a couple of markets, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids – Waterloo. Our best signal came from nearby Ottumwa, which was a much smaller market. In that market, there was only one station, KTVO on channel 3. As far as production values, they’ve always been fairly good as far as small markets are concerned, but one could tell that they didn’t have the resources of the larger Des Moines and Cedar Rapids – Waterloo markets.

Test cards, or test patterns as we call them here, are almost never seen these days. But back in the late sixties, they were quite abundant before 7 a.m. I used to watch them quite a bit, as I had already gotten the DXing bug. DX’ers were probably the only people that watched, generally because most US stations broadcast a rather annoying 1 kHz oscillator tone.

Variations of the four-spoke wheel and hub affair were generally used, similar in design to the WNBT test pattern from the late 40s. However, KTVO used a square variation of that theme. And KTVO hardly ever used a tone during their morning warm up, preferring a 20 minute recorded tape of popular music.

They generally didn’t get very radical, although I do remember hearing day after day “Green Tambourine,” which was popular at the time. More typical would have been Bert Kaempfert instrumentals, with “That Happy Feeling” as one that got used quite a bit.

Back to oscillator tones, while most used a 1 kHz tone, WHO-TV in Des Moines utilized a much lower note. Imagine a barn owl saying “whoooo” for forty minutes or more behind the test pattern.

As you can imagine, an owl was part of the WHO-TV logo at that time, and it continues to be part of the logo for WHO radio today. However, the rock band The Who was never part of the image of WHO.

They were simply too radical for a very old-line station with its radio roots dating back to 1924, before Iowa and the rest of the US west of the Mississippi became part of the K call-letter territory.

In the late sixties, there was at least one kids show per market in the late afternoon from about 3:30 to 5:30. Most were local, with the hosts basically serving as a continuity thread between cartoons.

I believe there may have been more local cartoon shows in earlier years, but I either wasn’t aware or around to know. I suspect the stations that could wrap up the Warner Bros cartoon package kept their kiddie shows going the longest.

WMT-TV in Cedar Rapids had what everyone in my little town watched, Dr Max. He had a fairly spartan set with a rolltop desk, a little like an old time doctor’s office. What I liked about it most as a kid… NO KIDS! Dr Max and his sidekick Mombo the Clown were just interested in talking with us little viewers at home, who were just interested in relaxing after a long school day.

They never talked down to us, either. On the infrequent occasions where kids appeared on the show, it was literally for their fifteen seconds of fame… “The Marion Cub Scout Pack 54 is visiting the station today. Wave to all your friends and family at home… now here’s our next ‘colortoon!'” They were cartoons everywhere else, but ‘colortoons’ on Dr Max. Didn’t matter, we didn’t get a color set until I’d grown out of Dr Max about 1971.

From Des Moines, we’d also see the Floppy show from WHO-TV. Duane Ellett, a long time WHO radio and TV personality, carved Floppy from a block of wood back in the 50s. Floppy had a shape similar to the Snoopy character from Peanuts, and moved much like a Muppet, but otherwise he was his own dog. Duane was always behind the scenes in the early days.

In the earlier days, a young lady hosted it and Duane worked behind a fence. In the late 60s Duane came out front and worked Floppy ventriloquist style. Duane and Floppy was on twice a day, for fifteen minutes after the noon news, and a half an hour later in the afternoon.

The half-hour show always had kids on the set. I liked the noon version better as a kid, and it was fairly amazing the following Duane and Floppy had with adults then. Who needed more news, when a couple of WB cartoons could provide a few laughs before the adults had to go back to work? The noon version of Duane and Floppy lasted well into the eighties, well after the afternoon version left the air.

One of the worst things about the Floppy show was the practice of letting kids tell dumb riddles. I never knew until much later that the Des Moines area had a thing for dumb riddles.

It grew from an effort to stop mayhem and tricks by children at Halloween time in the late thirties and early forties. Kids were encouraged to do a trick or tell a riddle in exchange for a Halloween treat, rather than extort candy as protection against acts of vandalism. And it caught on.

But I suspect it really got ingrained into the Des Moines culture with the telling of riddles on the Floppy show in the sixties and seventies. To this day, when kids come to your door at Halloween in Des Moines, they don’t say “Trick or Treat!” They tell you a stupid riddle instead.

As far as I know, this happens in no other area where Halloween is celebrated. To be honest, it’s kind of cute, once a year. But on the Floppy show, stupid riddles were a daily occurrence. Dr Max would have nipped that nonsense in the bud.

It should be no surprise that just as you didn’t hear The Who on WHO, there was no Doctor Who either! We still have reruns of the latter on Iowa Public Television.

KTVO had its own kiddie show, which they called Candy Land. I suspect it was a blatant rip off of the Milton Bradley game, as it seems the graphics of the program’s intro card were a dead ringer for those on the Candy Land game box. Perhaps they had an agreement with Milton Bradley to use that, because I remember visiting the show, and we played the MB game Twister between commercials.

Remember, I was only six at the time. I began developing my sense of cynicism about then. The young lady who was the host of the show would make tracks for the projection room as soon as the cartoons came on. I still think she didn’t want to waste her time with us little twerps, preferring to have a smoke!

Reading about the fall and rise of the Emley Moor site on mb21 brings back recollections of ice storms in the midwest. Number 1 problem – antenna elements would get the droopies and sometimes break off.

Remember we’re still horizontally polarized with TV antennas in the US, and we’re still using VHF clear down to Channel 2, around 54 MHz. Most areas now have at least one UHF station now, but that wasn’t true in Iowa in the sixties and seventies.

Number 2 problem – rotors would ice up. In the fringe areas, multiband VHF antennas would have to be rather large for good reception, with boom length 10 feet or more. In areas like ours with stations coming from several different directions, it was cheaper to turn them with a rotor than install a separate antenna.

One thing we learned – never point the antenna towards KTVO in the winter. If it later froze there, that’s all we could watch for several weeks until it thawed. However, if we pointed it towards Des Moines or Cedar Rapids, we could still get a fairly good KTVO signal from the back of the antenna.

Number 3 problem – was the collapse of a broadcast tower. KWWL Channel 7 from Waterloo lost their 2000-foot tower in 1983 to heavy ice and strong winds, in a manner most reminiscent to the Emley Moor tower failure in 1969. I can say that I’ve never seen any true circular masts of the Emley Moor height in the U.S.

They’re all of the lattice construction style, for less wind resistance, I suspect. Of course, there are a lot of freestanding circular masts used in cell phone sites, with heights up to about 150 feet. Besides the KWWL collapse, at least two others have fallen among Iowa TV broadcasters: KCRG, Cedar Rapids in 1973, and KTVO, which had relocated to Kirksville, Missouri, in 1988.

In these two examples, the towers were being strengthened and modified, which is apparently a rather dangerous procedure. Several workers fell to their death in both the KCRG and KTVO tower failures. KTVO, unlike the other two stations, chose not to rebuild their 2000-foot tower, and moved back to their original 1100-foot facility.

There are a lot of 2000-foot towers in Iowa, and I can only speculate about several reasons on why that’s the case. An evenly dispersed population in Iowa: a balanced population between urban and rural areas and cheaper land, since the urbanized areas are generally not very large, geographically.

Hard Times in Ottumwa started in 1973, when the John Morrell meat packing plant closed. Founded in the 1800s by an Englishman who emigrated to the US, Morrell’s employed thousands of people and was a major food and meat brand. The company was later sold in the 1950s or 60s, and all of the front office jobs eventually left. But when the Morrell production facility closed in Ottumwa, the area began to experience a long economic and population decline that continues today.

KTVO has always been licensed to Kirksville, Missouri, about 60 miles south of Ottumwa. But when the station was built in the fifties, the owners of KBIZ radio in Ottumwa financed it. They built the TV studios in Ottumwa, and the tower was placed just to the south of the Iowa – Missouri border about halfway between Kirksville and Ottumwa.

This arrangement lasted for about twenty years, then KTVO was ordered by the Federal Communications Commission to relocate to Kirksville, given the main studio location requirements in place at the time.

Losing the channel 3 studios, while not as major in impact as the Morrell shutdown, still was a bit of a blow to the civic pride of Ottumwa. Today, channel 3 maintains a remote studio for news in Ottumwa, plus there is a now a Fox affiliate operating from Ottumwa on Channel 15.

If you’re interested in more of the station history of KTVO, go to www.ktvotv3.com. It’s under “Features.” Also, they have six of their former station ID cards on display, beginning with the first one used in 1955.

A lament echoed repeatedly is that US television viewing is too “cluttered,” the design is too “busy,” etc. I could go on and cover territory that has already been explored, but I’d probably sum it up in three words – “too much choice.”

There’s too much competition for viewers’ attention. It will probably continue to the point of absurdity, as there are too many practitioners in video graphics of “circus” design. I long for the old days of a nice clean network slide with announcer voice over to promo an upcoming show. Simple, and effective.

But, now that we have these new toys, it’s very hard to exercise restraint in design. And with all the choices available, it’s almost necessary for media providers to pander to the base instincts in order to survive. It’s a hard question to answer. However, it’s a safe bet that we won’t see many test patterns anymore.

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