It's late at night. Summertime, mid-1980s. The house is quiet. I've stayed up way too late for a middle-school kid. Again. And now, after David Letterman and the late re-run of the local news and enough "Just Say No" commercials to narcotize Nancy Reagan, the TV puts me to bed with a patriotic lullaby.
This was the world before infomercials. It cost TV stations more money to stay on overnight than they could make in ad revenue, so most channels just went dark. But before they did, they offered up a brief but memorable menu: maybe a prayer, maybe an editorial, maybe a montage/tour of their broadcasting facilities, and always a short film of nature or military scenes set to either the national anthem or "America the Beautiful".
TV stays on all night now. The sign-off age has concluded its broadcast day. But a handful of weirdos have preserved some of these evocative bits of broadcasting ephemera on YouTube. Weirdos like me appreciate them for it. I hope, after checking out these fascinating sign-offs, so will you...
WLVI 56, Boston, 1985
You can tell a lot about a city by its TV sign-offs. This clip from liberal Boston not only features an eco-friendly "Star-Spangled Banner" montage produced by the Sierra Club, but the evening prayer is conducted by a Muslim Imam! It seems they rotated the religions featured every night - you didn't really think a Boston station would totally shut out the Catholics, didja?
WPVI 6, Philadelphia, 1971
The national anthem in this clip, one of the oldest sign-offs I've found, mashes up American patriotism, Philadelphia boosterism ("workshop of the world"), and WPVI boilerplate for one of the most original sign-offs out there. Dig those '70s Philadelphia streetscapes.
WRAL 5, Raleigh, 1989
This "Star-Spangled Banner" clip uses vintage illustrations and the evolution of the U.S. flag to sum up a wide swath of American history. I'm usually allergic to Bicentennial-era patriotic kitsch, but this carries it off much better than most '70s' star-spangled ugliness.
KTZO 20, San Francisco, circa 1979
A stone-cold classic glimpse of the moment when the '70s started to turn into the '80s, from the rainbow station logo to the styles sported by station employees in the lengthy "meet the staff" montage. The shaggier ones look like they stepped out of Dazed & Confused, while the shorthairs anticipate the imminent Reagan age. An interesting selection of San Francisco-themed musical standards, in lieu of a national anthem, soundtrack some lovely aerial video of the Bay Area. Now THIS is the way to conclude your broadcast day.
KTBS 3, Shreveport, 1975
Some stations were happy just to throw up a canned national anthem and call it a night. Not KTBS. First, they give us a mournful rendition of "Dixie" set to a swampland sunset that frankly doesn't make the land of cotton look all that hospitable. Then it morphs into... "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"? Turns out we're actually listening to "An American Trilogy", the medley made famous by Elvis, which duly concludes with "All My Trials" as a guy skims rocks and we look at a broken levee or something. A for originality.
WQLN 54, Erie, 1995
TV stations near the U.S.-Canada border often included both countries' national anthems in their sign-offs. This one accompanies those anthems with images from both Erie, PA and London, Ontario, making a peanut-munching Canadian squirrel an international TV personality. Even at this late date, this signoff was still dutifully advising the audience that some portions of their programming were reproduced on videotape, and directing "FM radio enthusiasts" that they could tune in to the station's audio signal on their radios. Cute.
KPOL 40, Tucson, 1987
Who needs a national anthem when you've got this smooth-jazz montage of hang gliders, hot air balloons, and biplanes? Some pretty awesome '80s street fair footage, too, including a sword-swallower. Not sure why they disrupted the tranquil mood by following it with an uptempo clip of Jim Campbell's "The Lights of Tucson", but the local footage for that one is worth the jolt.
KING 5, Seattle, 1985
After sharing their "sincere hope that you have enjoyed our entertainment", this Seattle stalwart sets a montage of Northwestern nature scenes to the "Doxology" hymn. Video Sominex in its purest, sweetest form. Then comes a bombastic marching-band version of the ol' SSB set to NASA footage of blastoffs and moonwalks. Wake up and go to bed!
WXYZ 7, Detroit, 1980
A great PSA about churches helping recently released female convicts and unemployed Chicanos reminds us "the God we worship expects us to help one another." It's followed by one of the more common "Star-Spangled Banner" films, with the stars and stripes placed awkwardly in the middle of a horizontal split-screen. The top shows a fighter jet, the bottom scenery from across the country (including a fleeting shot of Seattle with the Space Needle). Not one of my favorites, but it was certainly a popular one back then.
KFSM 5, Fort Smith, 1983
Moog fans, this vintage synth version of our national anthem will turn you into a red-blooded, star-spangled, patriot. The images, which emphasize the varied people of the U.S. more than the scenery or military power, doesn't hurt either.
Yes, even HBO once had a bedtime. This charming clip reminds you to do everything from cover your birdcage, to put the milk bottle out, to turn down your thermostat (an especially important one during the Carter era.)
KTUL 8, Tulsa, late '70s
Here's something you don't see every day, unless you live in 1970s Tulsa and like to stay up late: a Native American sign-language version of the Lord's Prayer. It's oddly moving, but the pan up the broadcast tower seems a little sacreligious.
CBMT 6, Montreal, 1987
Here's a bonus Canadian clip that manages to distill the varied charms of our sprawling northern neighbor into a stirring minute-and-a-half. Many Canadian stations also used to run "God Save the Queen" at the end of the day, but the videos I've seen are always dull parades of royal pageantry, so I won't waste your time with one of those.
This is probably way too many of these, but there are so many other great ones that I could include here, too. Just search YouTube for "tv signoff" or browse the immense collection at TV-signoffs.com. That is, if you're as big a nerd as I am about this stuff. Where would the Internet be without that potent cocktail of geekdom and nostalgia?
Anyway, it bums me out that my kids will never know the secret thrill of staying up later than TV. They'll never nod off during a late movie and be jolted awake by the blare of static. They'll never see their TV screens divided into multicolored bars. But thanks to these clips and dozens more like them, I can still feel like I'm the only person in town who's awake.
Any sign-off clips out there that give you that feeling? Show 'em in the discussion thread...