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?

Picture 162.pngLong before it was a Weird Al movie, UHF meant ultra-high frequency and operated channels between 300 MHz and 3.0 GHz. But to pre-cable-era couch potatoes, UHF meant "anything higher than 13." UHF stations had been popping up sporadically across the U.S. since 1949, but not that many people were able to watch them. Televisions weren't equipped to receive the frequency, and interested viewers had to buy and hook up a separate converter box to their set to watch Count Scary's Horror Classics or Happy Stella Kowalski's Schottische Hour. Even though the programming pickings were slim on UHF stations, the FCC was handing out licenses right and left and more and more locally-owned channels were being launched. But with so few viewers, it was hard to sell advertising time, and the entire UHF concept was in danger of becoming extinct. The solution to the problem came in 1962, when President John F. Kennedy signed the "all channel bill" into law, which made it mandatory for any television set manufactured in (or imported into) the U.S. after April 30, 1964, to be equipped to receive both VHF and UHF channels. Interestingly, even though "diversity" had yet to become a catch phrase, it was the main impetus behind the bill. Many of the UHF stations broadcasted foreign-language programs indigenous to their area (Spanish in Chicago, Arabic in Detroit, etc.) and the FCC wished to preserve and promote "a multitude of tongues"

Picture 141.pngOriginally, channels 14-83 were designated for UHF use, but for some reason, very few stations were assigned any number above 69. In the mid-1980s, channels 70 through 83 were removed from television and assigned to the then-new analog cell phone industry. Some savvy (and naughty) TV viewers may remember the days of being able to eavesdrop on their neighbor's phone calls by using the UHF tuner.

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

Picture 171.pngHow many times per your TV viewing day do you grumble "The commercials are so much louder than the regular programming, there be a law against that"¦"? Actually there is a law, sort of. The FCC limits the volume of audio transmissions by television broadcasters; that is, they dictate the highest level or modulation that the transmitters can send their signals to your TV set. The volume level stays the same when a commercial break comes on, but savvy advertisers take advantage of sound technology and fill up the entire audio spectrum with sound. Using signal compression, they layer music, sound effects and speech throughout the full dynamic range. The result is a sound that is denser and more complex than that of the regular programming, which our ears interpret as "louder." In addition, a TV program usually doesn't constantly broadcast at peak volume; they have "peaks" and "valleys" of loudness, as do humans in normal everyday conversation. But advertisers only have 30 seconds to get your attention, so they traditionally assault us at full volume for the duration of their message.

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.

twitterbanner.jpg