In the 1970s, TV programming ended each night around midnight or 1 a.m., and all the local channels except one signed off before going black by playing the national anthem while the screen showed scenes of America or our armed forces. Channel 5 played a song by the pop group America called "This Is for All the Lonely People." I've always wondered why.
George Rose, Laytonsville
Some of you younger readers might want to be sure you're sitting down for this stunning revelation: Television used to go away.
That's right. It wasn't always as it is now, where insomniacs and shift workers and serial-killers-in-training can flip on the TV at 3 a.m. and catch "Celebrity Justice" or a goofy infomercial.
Oh no, no, no. It used to be that about 1 or 2 in the morning TV went to sleep. But it didn't just go away in an instant. That would have been too jarring. There was something to ease the transition. This was the television sign-off.
Channel 4's Mac McGarry, who was hired in 1950 as a staff announcer at the NBC station, can still recite the sign-off patter:
"This concludes our broadcast day. WRC-TV is owned and operated by the National Broadcasting Company, under a license granted by the Federal Communications Commission."
It went on in this vein for a few more sentences, and then the announcer would say, "Good night. And now our national anthem."
Said Mac: "There were probably variations on that."
The typical image was something warm and patriotic -- Old Glory rippling in the breeze, combines moving across a Kansas wheat field, etc.
Ron Porter, an engineer who's been with WTTG since 1967, doesn't recall the "This Is for All the Lonely People" sign off.
"We used to use an Air Force one," he said. It was aerial footage of a World War II-era P-51 Mustang while someone read John G. Magee Jr.'s "High Flight," the poem that begins: "Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth . . ."
Porter: "Then you'd go to hash."
"Hash" is the word for the snow that would fill the TV screen to an accompanying staticky shrshrshrshrshr.
"That was a really nice sound when you signed off, because that meant you could go home," said Ron.
Hash served another purpose, said Lee Shephard, a Channel 9 announcer from 1961 to 1969: "The guys who would fall asleep on the couch [in front of the TV], that would wake them up."
It might be that Channel 5 did briefly use a sign-off that featured "This Is for All the Lonely People" and Ron Porter just doesn't recall it. As for why, it would be a fitting theme for people awake in their living rooms at 12:59 a.m. thinking, as the lyric goes, "that life has passed them by."
There was something unsettling about the TV sign-off. Experiencing it was like coming unmoored, as if a lifeline had been cut.
To get an idea of what a TV sign-off was like, and the sense of creepy disconnection it could engender, check out the horror movie "Poltergeist."
No Creepy Disconnection at Moss Hollow
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