Sunday, 11 May
|TV Test Pattern
Good Morning Justin…
Years ago, when I was probably about your age, I sometimes watched an artsy little program that aired on CBS, Sunday mornings. I suppose you can think of it as the precursor to the current Sunday Morning on the same network. In its day, though, Camera Three was a bargain-basement budget half-hour program produced to fulfill the network’s commitment to what was called public service programming. At the time the FCC, Federal Communications Commission, required all broadcast stations to provide a portion of their air time for programs that earned your attention on the basis of community merit. Which is to say it was the entertainment world’s version of “Eat your vegetables.” If you were up early enough to watch you would likely find two bureaucrats at a government surplus desk discussing the intricacies of allocating traffic lights for outlying communities. As the owner of Happy’s Family Burger Ranch you wouldn't want to buy advertising on the show because the meager few viewers up and about at this hour are only interested in getting their bowels to move.
As a kid I was a TV fanatic. Back in the days of portable black and white televisions sporting rabbit ears, before there was cable and overnight infomercials, TV stations routinely signed off the air shortly after midnight. They would resume their broadcast day starting with a test pattern. This was a simple graphic made up of expanding circles overlaid by a prominent horizontal and vertical line that intersected at the center like a crosshair. For interest value there might be the profile of an Indian at the top. This feature would appear shortly before sunrise, accompanied by an electronic hum, and it would enable you to tweak various knobs in the back of your TV so people like Gunsmoke’s Matt Dillon didn’t look squiggly. For me, Channel Ten’s test pattern was my first program of the day. My official broadcast excitement really began with the sign on.
“Good Morning. This is KGTV, Channel Ten, San Diego.”
The announcer would proceed to tell me all about who owned the station, which mountain their transmitter was located on, how much broadcast power its transmitter had and how the station was dedicated to providing the community with wholesome entertainment and valuable news. Then without further fanfare we would hear the opening theme to Today on the Farm. I don’t where this show came from but it wouldn’t surprise me if some local elementary school’s audio-visual department supplied these old films to the station. The program told me about plowing techniques used by farmers to reduce hill erosion and various antibiotics that were available so my egg-laying hens would stay healthy and productive. I learned about the four food groups as well as proper dental care and being sure to wash behind my ears before heading off to school.
If I missed this important start to my day then I must have been out of town or my flickering window to the world blew a catastrophic tube. My absence was definitely not voluntary.
It’s no wonder then that I would be up Sunday mornings watching what could rightly be called graveyard TV. The entire civilized world was taking this opportunity to be sleeping in following the obligatory carousing done each Saturday night. Yes, there are always a few exceptions but these are souls lost to television’s titillation as they are now filling the pews at the morning’s earliest possible church services. So alone, I was left to witness this particular Sunday’s episode of Camera Three.
I clearly remember Harry Reasoner hosted the program on this occasion. He smiles into the camera and begins by telling me that the entire show will be devoted to examining the structure we use to gain access to the next room – doors and the hole in the wall they occupy. The topic holds intrigue for me but only because I’m the sole occupant of a deserted isle. Harry then produces a surprise. He has with him this morning a special guest. The famous mime Marcel Marceau is here to dramatize the various scenarios we encounter while interacting with doors.
Possibly you’re thinking, “You must be kidding.” Bless your heart. I most certainly am not. I would not pull your leg over something that has been part of my memory now for more than fifty years. I think it has stuck with me all this time because of the remarkable way a few talented people pulled a rabbit from their hat and made something magical rise from a dead as doornail program. Allow me to relate to you a single instance.
Imagine you are the Sun King, Louis the Sixteenth, His Majesty, the resplendent progeny of centuries of French Bourbon rule. You are wealthy beyond imagination. Now you are being led through a dark corridor, then suddenly, you emerge from the doorway into glorious sunlight. The crowd of Parisians erupt in cheers and eagerly press forward to better examine your countenance. With customary formality you are escorted across the stage towards the tall looming structure to your left. You catch your breath at its elegant simplicity – two rails pointed skyward, a large heavy blade suspended at its top. Your final moment amidst this carnival is flush.
How would you handle your awaking at the doorway? How would Marcel Marceau?
Imagination is a brilliant human device. It enables us to tap into what is possible but, for us, yet has never been. It doesn't require expensive props, stirring words or computerized special effects. We can convey our imaginings in simple ways. Capturing the imagination of others is the difficulty. For that we require something peculiar, something exceedingly special.