Live From New York, It’s Saturday Night

by John Delach

Early TV: Part Four – Late Night / Early Morning TV

Today, TV is on the air twenty-four hours a day. Morning news programming on ABC, CBS and NBC begins at 4 AM. Fox starts at 4:30 AM. Between one am and four, they play re-runs of their popular shows.

Twenty-two years ago, when I was active, I would leave my house at 5:25 to catch the 5:36 Long Island Railroad train from Port Washington that deposited me into Penn Station at 6:20. Back then, WNBC’s local morning show hosted by Matt Lauer and Jane Hansen didn’t air until six am, followed at seven by The Today Show, one of NBC’s biggest money-makers.

Since 2000, Today has expanded from a two-hour broadcast into a four-hour monster. Understandably, NBC pushed this expansion after nine am so that their new entertainment segments didn’t interfere with early morning news, traffic and weather. ABC, CBS and FOX followed the same format. They all understood not to interfere with early morning commuter’s needs. Simon and Garfinkle explained these needs in, The Only Living Boy in New York:

“I get the news I need from the weather report,

I can gather all the news I need on the weather report.” 

On the back end, actual broadcasts once ended at 11 pm. We would realize that the broadcast was at an end when the stars and stripes flying in the wind appeared on the screen and a non-vocal recording of our National Anthem filled the speaker. Once the Anthem ended, the screen would revert to a test pattern, an image of a circle within a square with lots of curious information as an annoying tone filled the television’s speakers. This is the NBC test pattern:

(NOTE: For reasons beyond my control, I cannot include the test pattern in the body of this piece, If you are interested you can either look it up or let me know and I will send it to you separately.)       

The NBC Pattern was developed in variations of it became the staple of all television stations when they went off the air and before they resumed broadcasting the following morning. The lines and circles were designed to give electrical engineers the means to calibrate the stations visible image. NBC’s test pattern included an image of an “Indian Head,” positioned at twelve o’clock on their test pattern. The reason for using this image is lost to history, but my research found that it was used to set brightness and contrast. The test pattern was used by commercial TV from 1947 until 1977.

In their early days, most TV stations didn’t broadcast between midnight and Six AM on weekdays. Weekends, especially, Sundays, was anybody’s guess as “Blue Laws” prevailed in most of America. NBC was a leader in expanding these boundaries. First up was The Today Show that revolutionized morning news, information and entertainment beginning in 1954.

A late-night show followed that same year, Tonight Across America After Dark that originally aired from 11:20 to Midnight on Weekdays. The inaugural host was Steve Allen, but in 1957, NBC picked Allen to host NBC’s new Sunday night variety show. A gaggle of minor league talent filled in as hosts including Jack Lescoulie and Al “Jazzbo” Collins until Jack Parr took the reins of the newly formatted Tonight Show Starring Jack Parr.

NBC had gone two for two in re-defining weekday morning and late-night TV. Then, on October 11, 1975, they unveiled their latest venture, the show that revolutionized late-night weekend TV, Saturday Night Live. Produced by Lorne Michaels, SNL remains on the ai, r and has run for 47 seasons with over 925 episodes.

When you look-up the original cast, it is hard to believe that it included so many stars, all still household names: Loraine Newman, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Garrett Morris and Chevy Chase.

Sunday afternoon was the dead zone. The 1950s church going Christian America’s ritual included the Three PM dinner centered around a Sunday Roast, beef, chicken or ham, mashed potatoes, beans and / or other vitals depending on geography, religion, family and origin.    

The oddest late-night show was Open End hosted by David Susskind. It was truly open ended with no set time to leave the airways. The show began at 11 pm on Sunday nights with suggested end time of one am, But it could continue into the wee hours of Monday morning. His guests included the likes of James Baldwin, William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer who would discuss, debate and at times shout at each other about current and controversial events, thoughts and beliefs.

Most guests were male smokers and a veil of smoke descended as the show continued. Alcohol also seemed to be available to guests at least surreptitiously as the FCC banned all alcohol on TV

I watched it several times especially if Buckley was a guest who could hold his own with anyone. I remember one memorable evening when Buckley went at it with Mailer. Mailer was pissed off from the start over the preface in Buckley’s new book. One of Buckley’s friend and associate wrote the preface and he made the comment that Mailer was a freak.

Mailer went on and on about the comment as Buckley posed in an armchair slumped down, head leaning on the back of the chair and with his legs dangling to one side. Finally, Mailer stopped for air. Buckley tilted his head toward Mailer so their eyes met then spoke in his peculiar Connecticut / Yale accent: “Ah, but, ah, well, ah, but, ah, Mr. Mailer, you are a freak.”

Now, that’s entertainment.