Television scholars (to the extent there are such people) say that television became commercially viable in 1949. Before then, television broadcasting was considered experimental. That’s not to say that experimenting ceased in 1949; the technologies for delivering television have improved immeasurably in 60 years. Some of those changes have been obvious. You may remember when black and white gave way to color or when mono gave way to stereo. This year, analog gives way to digital, and standard definition starts to give way to high definition. But many other more subtle changes have happened over the years, the kind you don’t notice until you look back and see how things used to be done.
CBS aired a patriotic musical extravaganza on July 4, 1977, and somebody in western Michigan recorded it. They also captured a news update, some commercials, two promos, a public service announcement, and a station ID from WKZO, the CBS station in Kalamazoo. Watch this clip to see them.
Doesn’t this seem slow-paced and rough around the edges? You might think that Kalamazoo was some backwater little town with a TV station on a shoestring budget, but Kalamazoo, with nearby Grand Rapids and Battle Creek, is a top-50 media market. That’s hardly small potatoes. This clip is actually typical of how TV was done across the nation in the ’70s.
In 1977, network television was delivered to local stations by a system of coaxial cable and microwave radio relay, the nation’s first broadband network. But bandwidth was limited, and picture and sound suffered enough that local programming looked and sounded crisper than network programming (unless you lived in New York or Los Angeles, where network programs originated). Strangely, NBC sounded a bit different from ABC, which sounded different from CBS; perhaps they all tweaked their audio processing a bit differently. Network picture and sound are of consistently good quality today because programming is delivered via satellite.
Also, it may look like Morton Dean is sitting in the dark, but he’s actually sitting in front of a big green wall. A technology called chroma key lays a second video or image over everything colored green. Here, a slide with “CBS News” on a black background is chroma-keyed in. Morton had to be careful not to wear anything green or it would disappear.
Notice the thin white border around Morton’s head? That’s called a halo, and it’s created when the lighting isn’t just right. You used to see the chroma-key halo effect all the time in the 70s, but today engineers have lighting down to a science, eliminating haloing. Chroma key is one old technology that’s still around – TV meteorologists everywhere stand before blue or green walls to deliver their forecasts.
The Newsbreak graphic is superimposed over Morton and the slide. Plain text was superimposed using a character generator, a computer that could display text on TV. A company called Chyron (kye-ron) led the way in this technology, so much so that everybody in TV called any character generator a Chyron. The Newsbreak graphic, being animated, may have been created in some other way.
Here’s another example of a character generator at work, this time generated by WKZO.
Next, CBS showed a promo for the show it was about to air. Musical extravaganzas like this are long gone from commercial television. Nobody misses them. The text on the screen could have been produced with a Chyron.
Then CBS showed its logo, which was always the signal to CBS stations across the country that the network was going to let them take over for a couple minutes. Stations sold commercials, or spots as they’re called in the biz, to air during these times, and apparently WKZO had cut a deal with Burger Chef.
Did you notice how the sound level distorts and there’s a rumbling sound on the soundtrack? Did you notice how, at the end, the Burger Chef logo seems to wobble around a bit? These are all hallmarks of film. Like most stations in the 70s, WKZO certainly used a film chain, a machine that connected several film and slide projectors to a TV camera, to show movies and spots. So the film for this spot was threaded into one of the projectors in the film chain and when the time came, the engineer pressed a button to start the film playing. By the mid-1980s stations had switched to videotape, and today stations have switched to digital media.
After the Burger Chef spot, the WKZO engineer switched the film chain to point at a slide projector that showed this slide of Andy Rooney. Such slides are called telops.
Did you hear the “tak” sound just before the announcer started to speak? That was the switch that opened the microphone. An announcer was actually sitting in a booth reading the copy for this promo live. Stations don’t use live announcers anymore; everything is pre-recorded.
The announcer even read the station ID live. Then as now, the FCC requires television stations to identify themselves at the top of each hour by giving their call letters and city of license. Stations can give their channel number in between if they want, and WKZO always wanted. Stations can give their ID either visually or verbally, and in the 70s most stations did both. Today, station IDs are snuck in as graphics in the lower third of the screen during the first few seconds of a show, and you probably don’t even notice them.
The announcer had to time his words carefully so they ended just as CBS resumed programming. He got it just right this time – as soon as he says, “It’s nine o’clock,” CBS signaled the top of the hour with its “bong” sound. The bong was extremely accurate; you could set your watch to it. The bong disappeared from TV sometime in the early 1980s, but if it makes you feel all nostalgic for simpler times, you can listen to it again and again right here:
In the 70s, when a network pre-empted a regular show, they always told you. Today, the networks fiddle with their schedules all the time. We almost expect our shows not to be on anymore! Accordingly, pre-emption notices have pretty much disappeared. Here, CBS used telops for each preempted show.
If you grew up in the 1970s, you probably totally dig the “CBS Special Presentation” bumper. Each network had some sort of graphic or animation that heralded a special program, but those, too, are gone.
These three minutes were routine television business that most people hardly noticed. But they say a lot about how television used to be done.