Please Stand for the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ as Featured in These ’70s-’90s TV Station Sign-Offs
I love the original 1982 Poltergeist not only because it is a fun and scary film, but also because it briefly reminds me of a time when local TV stations would actually conclude their broadcast day and go off the air for several hours during the evening.
Where I lived, this often happened at midnight, but sometimes it could be later, if the station was airing an old movie during their “Late Late Show” or whatever they called their programming block.
Depending upon the station, there could be a ramping up to the final broadcast of the evening. There could be commercials for what was going to air the following day (or later that same day), once the station signed back on sometime around sunrise. There may have been some inspirational messages delivered by a faith leader in segments frequently called something like Reflections or Meditations or Thought for the Day.
A voiceover would also regale you with all the station ID info — the channel’s ownership, frequency, etc. — and then invite you to tune in the following day before wishing you a pleasant good night and finishing with something like, “Channel ___ now concludes its broadcast day.”
Among their other inspirations for the daredevil archaeologist they introduced in Raiders of the Lost Ark, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg raided the lost art of action-packed '30s and '40s movie serials like Spy Smasher and Perils of Nyoka.
Following all of that, in the final broadcast of its day, a station would more often than not air a montage of patriotic, all-American landmarks and monuments, and U.S. military imagery, accompanied by a patriotic tune — usually America’s national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Then, as the final “… and the home of the brave” lyric tailed off, the channel might explode into staticky white noise that would hiss all night long, until sign on the next day, or perhaps go right into color bars and test patterns accompanied by an unbroken and almost hypnotic “wooooooooooooo” noise for hours on end.
This longtime and formerly common practice is a major plot point in Poltergeist, which famously starts with extreme, creepy close-ups of one of these patriotic, “Star-Spangled Banner” sign-offs done for eerie effect before the white noise kicks in on the screen. It is played again in another scene later in the movie, where it is seen it its normal form.
The video below features the station sign-off Poltergeist used, in a far less scary presentation. I’m not sure where it originally came from, but it seems like it could have been a production licensed and used by various stations around the country.
In both instances in the film, this TV sign-off meant menacing things were ahead, with supernatural beings speaking to little Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) through the static.
But I was always more fascinated than scared by all of this when I was around 11-12, at the time Poltergeist came out. I was a night owl even then, and loved staying up when I could to watch stations sign off (I had a small hand-me-down black-and-white TV in my room). When that white noise hiss kicked in, I occasionally heard voices in it, but it was not the “TV People“; it was stray signals briefly coming in from someplace else, maybe a radio or an answering machine.
“We Now Conclude Our Broadcast Day”
Below is a roundup of several videos of local TV station sign-offs from from cities all across America, ranging from the late 1970s to the early ’90s (around the time when more stations began staying on the air throughout the night either with programming or infomercials).
They all include “The Star-Spangled Banner” at some point (a number also have bits of the things mentioned above leading into the anthem).
Real, old-school Americans may get a bit misty-eyed not just from the patriotism on display, but also from nostalgia — even from seeing and hearing things like static and color bars, which are now basically extinct in the age of digital over-the-air programming.
Ahead of the anthem here is the end of the station’s late-night movie that evening, 1961’s The Guns of Navarone, as well as an inspirational message delivered in a “Reflections” segment.
Following the national anthem in this one, you can enjoy about an hour and 40 minutes of the color bars and static that followed throughout the wee hours of the morning, if you want to experience or relive what constituted late-night viewing back in the day.
Washington, D.C. (1980)
This one also has some cool and relaxing “Meditation” music easing you into your bedtime ahead of the anthem.
Los Angeles (1982)
This is kind of an odd one; ahead of the unique interpretation of the anthem, which, befitting the early ’80s, seems to be performed on a Moog synthesizer, there is the High Flight film/poem that I think was probably used in a number of these sign-offs over the years.
Cambridge, Massachusetts (1987)
Miami-Fort Lauderdale (1988)
Montgomery, Alabama (1988)
New York City (1988)
Roanoke, Virginia (1988)
Horace/Fargo, North Dakota (1989)
“America the Beautiful” Sign-Offs
Occasionally, a station didn’t use “The Star-Spangled Banner” in its sign-off, and would instead sign off with another patriotic song, like “America the Beautiful.”
For example, this Chicago channel that used “America the Beautiful” as a station sign-off and sign-on in 1983:
And this Detroit station in 1986:
And this Fort Wayne, Indiana, station that used Ray Charles‘ lovely rendition of “America the Beautiful” to end its programming day in 1989:
A monstrous rabbit in the hat, a mouthless sister, a gremlin on the wing of the plane and more from the 1983 anthology movie that also inspired me to watch Rod Serling's classic series for the first time.