The history of the BBC trade test transmission (part 3/4)

First published in 2008. Last updated: 4th August 2020.

Our history of the BBC trade test transmission continues.

Special versions of the test card

The BBC Presentation department occasionally made one-off updates to the test card, particularly at Christmas and New Year. Here are some of the examples we have in our archive:

Other examples that we know about but don’t have copies of in the archive:

  • Christmas Day 1983: the BBC Two test card has holly placed at each corner, and the ‘COLOUR’ text that would normally appear at the bottom of the screen is replaced with the word ‘Christmas’, in red text, to read ‘BBC 2 Christmas’.
  • Christmas Day 1988: the BBC Two test card apparently received some festive adjustment (details unclear). But we’re led to believe the ‘TWO’ logo appeared on the card.
  • Christmas Day (early 1990s): the channel logo is replaced with red text reading ‘Merry Christmas’. Carole Hersee is airbrushed out of the picture.

The scheduling of Test Card F

There was quite a lot of change in policy over the years regarding the on-air use of the test card. And on top of that, lots of ad hoc scenarios. But here are some general points:

  • Contrary to popular opinion, in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Test Card F was not broadcast overnight, after BBC One and BBC Two closed down. That changed in 1989 with occasional experimental overnight broadcasts of (encrypted) specialist programming, for British Medical TV. And also from 1992, with the launch of BBC Select (and later also Nightschool TV and BBC Focus), More details on this below.

    Until November 1997 – with the exception of nights where BMTV, BBC Select, Nightschool TV, BBC Focus or The Learning Zone was being broadcast – the BBC One and BBC Two transmitter network was shut down each night, around fifteen minutes after the last programme.

    When the announcer had bid us farewell, the screen would fade to black. We’d typically have thirty seconds of black and silence, which would be followed by ten minutes of tone on BBC One and two minutes of tone on BBC Two. Why the difference in duration between the two channels?

    Well, late-night regional news and weather forecasts were common in all BBC One regions in the 1970s and 1980, with the exception of London (network). Apparently, regional centres in England could not opt back to network if there was no valid network feed to opt back into. So, network had to stay online until all the regions had opted back in. This was not the case for the regional centres in Belfast, Cardiff and Glasgow, which regularly stayed up later than network.

    Local continuity in the English regions was discontinued in 1980, due to BBC cutbacks. However, the practice of ten-minute tone at closedown on BBC One continued well into the 1990s (it then switched to two minutes – date TBC). This was presumably out of courtesy to the national regions in Belfast, Scotland and Wales, who may have been closing down minutes after network. By staying online, network will have allowed the national Ceefax service to continue in the regions. If network went offline for the night, the Ceefax feed to the regions would have been lost. Ceefax was still a national service until 1997.

    Regional continuity was much less common on BBC Two, and so there was no need for a lengthy period of tone – just enough to wake up anyone that may have fallen asleep.

    Prior to the complete cessation of overnight transmitter shutdowns, there were a small number of occasions over the years where freezing weather conditions meant that the transmitters needed to be kept switched on overnight. In these situations, it was not uncommon for Test Card F to be transmitted although we do recall at least one occasion c. the mid-1980s where Pages from Ceefax and music was transmitted.

    During the Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm) in January/February 1991, BBC One transmitters remained switched on overnight – apparently in case the news department needed to broadcast news coverage at short notice. Pages from Ceefax was transmitted, accompanied by sombre music rather than the standard set of tapes.
  • Until the late-1960s, the test card was not transmitted between 1pm and 2pm. Black and tone was shown at lunchtime if there were no programmes.
  • The test card was not transmitted on Sundays, until 1974 (precise date unknown). Instead, short gaps between programmes were filled by black and tone. It was presumably felt there was no need for trade tests, as shops were closed and service engineers would not be working on a Sunday.

    There were few Sunday closedowns on BBC One, except during the summer months. BBC Two was normally off air completely on Sundays during the day until the early 1970s, when Open University transmissions came along. Even then, there were often large gaps between the final OU programme and the first BBC Two programme of the day, so the transmitters were shut down. Later, when the gap between OU and the first BBC Two programme was short, black and tone was used.

    Programme gaps of 15 minutes were often classified as an Interval, and were filled using a slide and music.

    RELATED ARTICLE: no trade test on Sundays.
  • From June 1983, Test Card F would appear for seven-and-a-half minutes prior to the start of the first programme of the day on BBC One (which was Ceefax AM on weekdays, at 6am). BBC Two was a little different. The first programme of the day there was quite often an Open University broadcast. In those situations, the OU transmissions were preceded and followed by black and tone (or, from 1984, the special OU test signal – more on that later). Test Card F would appear seven-and-a-half minutes before 9am (weekdays). The periods of black and tone/OU test signal and tone were replaced by Test Card F by the late-1980s.
  • On BBC One, Test Card F appeared before the first programme of the day on Saturdays and Sundays, for c. seven-and-a-half minutes, having been preceded by a period of pulse and bar – unless the first programme was an Open University production, in which case black and tone – or, from 1984, the OU test signal and tone – was used. Towards the end of the 1980s (date TBC), Pages from Ceefax appeared for 15 minutes prior to the first programme on Saturdays/Sundays, again, unless the first programme was for the OU, in which case Test Card F and tone was radiated.
  • Saturdays/Sundays on BBC Two usually meant starting the day with Open University programming. OU broadcasts would usually have been preceded by black and tone – or the OU test signal and tone, from 1984. From the late-1980s (date TBC), the OU test signal and tone was replaced by Test Card F and tone.

    Where there were no Open University programmes at the weekend, BBC Two would come on air shortly before 9am, with pulse and bar initially, followed by seven-and-a-half minutes of Test Card F, before giving way to Pages from Ceefax at 9am.

    By c. 1994, even where the first programme of the day on Saturdays/Sundays was for the Open University, Ceefax pages were broadcast, for c. 15 minutes prior to the start of the programme (preceded by a period of Test Card F).
  • From the late-1980s (date TBC), weeknights on BBC Two, if the final programme of the day was an OU production, played out from the OU continuity suite, Test Card F and tone was played out for a short period at closedown (instead of black and tone), prior to the transmitters being shut down for the night.
  • Between 1989 and 1992, the BBC broadcast specialist programming for British Medical TV overnight. The service was encrypted. A similar overnight encrypted service, targeted at various special audiences, was broadcast between June 1992 and December 1994 on BBC One and BBC Two. These programmes were usually broadcast between 2am and 6am, under the banner BBC Select. The service aired at least twice-a-week on each channel.

    Where a BBC Select programme was being broadcast, the channel in question would remain on air throughout the night. The BBC Select broadcast would be preceded and followed by Test Card F and tone. A similar arrangement applied for the Nightschool TV (January 1993 – October 1995) and BBC Focus (September/October 1995) overnight services on BBC Two.
  • On Monday 4th January 1993, BBC One’s Business Breakfast moved to a 6am start. Consequently, Ceefax AM moved to 5.45am. Test Card F was now broadcast for fifteen minutes from 5.30am each weekday. Pulse and bar was no longer transmitted when the transmitters were coming online.
  • At 2am on Monday 9th October 1995, the launch of the overnight Learning Zone signalled the end of overnight closedowns on BBC Two on Sunday/Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday nights, leaving Test Card F relegated to the early hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings only. The Learning Zone was suspended during holiday periods, such as Christmas and Easter – weekday closedowns did occur during these periods.
  • Following the launch of BBC News 24 in November 1997, Test Card F transmissions on BBC One came to an end. Rather than closing down, BBC One now broadcast BBC News 24 overnight. Weekend Test Card F remained unaffected on BBC Two for the time being, appearing around half-an-hour prior to the first programme of the day and giving way to Pages from Ceefax after fifteen minutes.

    In early 1998 (precise date TBC), the practice of weekend overnight transmitter shutdowns on BBC Two was discontinued. For a number of months, Test Card F and tone filled BBC Two’s downtime; however, by December, Pages from Ceefax was being broadcast through the night, accompanied by tone.
  • Between 1998 and 2009, the test card put in the odd appearance on BBC One and BBC Two (in various guises – Test Card F, Test Card J and Test Card W), mainly as part of overnight RBS tests on the analogue transmitter network. RBS tests were carried out once-a-year, on BBC One and BBC Two.
  • From 1st December 2007 until its closure on 26th March 2013, the BBC HD channel broadcast an HD/1080-line variant of Test Card W within its programme barker, outside of programme hours.
  • BBC Two included a further variation of Test Card W within its overnight programme highlights barker, from 2016 until 2019.

Continue to Part 4 >>>




Posted by The Clean Feed Team

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