Our friend Kurt Blumenau went down a rabbit hole the other day and into the history of the “more to come” bumpers shown during NBC’s Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. As I commented at Kurt’s post, it seems kind of quaint to think that NBC would have filled a local commercial break with music and a more-to-come slide instead of running a public service announcement or a network promo (or a commercial for some but-wait-there’s-more gadget, as they would today), but it was a different world.
Surely some NBC affiliates, late at night, had no commercial inventory of their own to run. They could have filled the time with their own public service announcements or promos, but in the days before compact video formats, running PSAs in particular (and filmed programs in general) was cumbersome. It required a piece of equipment called a film chain, which literally projected film into a TV camera. Stations would keep a reel of film with a bunch of PSAs on it, and load it up when needed. Or not.
Talk of late-night commercial breaks reminded me of a couple of stories from our days living and working radio in Macomb, Illinois. Macomb sat between Peoria and Quincy, about 70 highway miles from each, and we got TV stations from both. In the middle of the 80s, Quincy had only two stations, a CBS affiliate licensed to Hannibal, Missouri, across the Mississippi River, and an NBC affiliate. The Peoria stations did not attempt to sell advertising in Macomb, but the Quincy stations did. I never thought it made sense for Macomb businesses to buy Quincy TV. Putting your ad on a TV station 70 miles away meant that your money was being spent in part to reach people way the hell and gone over in Missouri, and they weren’t going to drive 140 miles to shop at your shoe store or muffler shop or whatever.
One especially popular package was “shop Macomb,” which would start with a short blurb encouraging viewers to visit Macomb, followed by three 15- or 20-second blurbs for individual Macomb businesses. (Many TV stations still sell this kind of community-specific package today.) As TV ads went, they were cheap to buy—but compared to radio ads, they cost a lot.
When The Mrs. was selling radio, some of her clients would occasionally pop for a shop-Macomb spot. One Saturday night, we were watching Saturday Night Live, and we noticed that the NBC affiliate didn’t have any local spots scheduled. They filled every local break with scratchy film-chain PSAs. That is, until the first break after SNL got over, right before sign-off, when they ran a shop-Macomb spot featuring one of her clients.
We have conflicting memories of her reaction to this. When I asked her about it the other night, she doesn’t remember being bothered. I remember it differently. Loosely translated, it was as follows: Why the #%!%@ didn’t they run that thing during Saturday Night Live instead of those $!@%ing PSAs, for #$% sake?
After Saturday Night Live each week, the Quincy NBC affiliate broadcast a news summary. It wasn’t a repeat of the late local news, which is what many stations do now in the wee hours of the morning before turning their airwaves over to infomercials. They’d put up a station identification slide and somebody, most likely the master-control engineer (the only person left in the building at midnight), would read five minutes of news, often just copy ripped from the AP or UPI wire. The broadcast would conclude with the weather forecast before the station played the National Anthem and went dark for the night. In the middle of the 1980s, that little low-tech news update seemed like such a quaint, small-town thing to do that I actually started to look forward to it a little.
Nowadays, technology makes it possible for even the tiniest stations in the middle of nowhere to look like big-time operations. Thirty-some years ago, they had to be what they were.