How did TCF become such an iconic BBC image?

It is an iconic BBC image – part of the brand heritage and as much a statement of the BBC of the 70s and 80s as the globe or the famous weather symbols. But the BBC is not the sole owner of Test Card F – it was created along with the ITA and the manufacturers’ association BREMA.

In the early 70s, it was not unusual to see TCF on all three channels simultaneously. In a sense, it should be no more a part of the BBC’s image and heritage than the industry-standard colour bars. So how did it become an iconic BBC image? Well…

Back in the late-50s and 60s, the two rival broadcasters rarely acknowledged each others’ existence on air. But the ITA and the BBC both used the same test card. When a new card for colour TV was being designed, this arrangement continued. But several factors combined to make TCF seem like the BBC’s sole property to the public.

BBC Two was the first channel in Europe to broadcast in colour so TCF was seen there two years ahead of anywhere else. The ‘BBC 2 COLOUR’ branding seemed an integral part of the design. Come 1969, TCF was being used on BBC One and by the ITA too. But note the words – used by the ITA, not ITV.

ITV itself was off air for much of the day because of rules designed to protect the BBC. The test card came from the transmitter and disappeared 15 minutes before the start of programmes to be replaced by bars, black screen and the local opening sequence. It didn’t appear immediately after morning and afternoon closedowns either.

Meanwhile on BBC One and BBC Two, the test card went off 2 minutes and 30 seconds before programmes began and reappeared inmediately after a closedown. It seemed an integrated part of BBC TV, whereas on the other side it was truly a sign that the local station was off the air.

Locally, TCF was only introduced by the ITA as the region went into colour – in some areas like the Westward and Grampian regions this was not until 1971.

Then in 1972, regular screenings of TCF on the third channel in most regions ended. A full afternoon schedule pushed schools programmes back to 9.30am. Then after summer 1973, the only regular screenings were during the school holidays if programmes started significantly later than 9.30am.

Meanwhile TCF still filled all the significant gaps on BBC One after 9am – it was still seen daily even while BBC One had an afternoon schedule before the BBC cash crisis of 1975. So it is perhaps no surprise that it came to be seen by the public as a BBC image.

Later on, it came to be seen as an evocative and loved retro image too – not a reminder that the BBC was for many years unable to provide a full daytime service.

In contrast, groan, TCF was not part of the story of the actual ITV companies – even if the public didn’t get the distinction between ITV and the ITA. For ITV,  the fact they were showing programmes while the BBC was not was something to be proud of. A test card was simply the televisual equivalent of a sign saying: “Go Away!”

And so an image created by a BBC engineer for the wider industry, truly became the BBC’s own – and later, once the days of endless trade test transmissions were confined to history, became something which those who care for the BBC could regard as a beautiful part of the heritage.



PICTURED: recreation of 1970s BBC Two Test Card F. SUPPLIED BY: The TV Room. COPYRIGHT: BBC.

Posted by Andrew Nairn

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