Or maybe there was a glitch at the station and they needed to fill some airtime. What Larky and Holmes created in the early 1950s was the one of the most iconic test patterns the world has ever seen.You know the one, with the bright color bars that are hard to miss. It’s probably the most widely recognized, but test patterns like it have been a key element of television almost since the beginning.Read on to learn how we got them, and what they do.
“A significant on-screen representative and host of the New World of television programming emerging in the 1930s and 1940s, the test pattern entered into an existing world of settler colonial mass media power and control over representations of Indians, in which the culturally and socially multidimensional and fluid indigenous is practically negated and absent.”— Dustin Tahmahkera, an associate professor with the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois, discussing the simplistic and stereotypical nature of the “Indian head” illustration, a drawing of a generic Native American man wearing a headdress, used on early television test patterns in his 2014 book Tribal Television: Viewing Native People in Sitcoms. Tahmahkera, a citizen of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma who specializes in researching Native American images in media, notes that at the time, it was one of the few mainstream portrayals of Native Americans in popular culture (he calls it “television’s first famous Indian”), and compared the portrayal to the type used on coins immediately before the test pattern came into use.
Sadly, the people credited with inventing the color test pattern haven’t gotten a ton of public recognition for itLet’s say you’re floating around an obituary page in a newspaper—let’s say the Los Angeles Times—and you see this line crop up:
He earned his engineering and electronics degrees from Lehigh University and his master’s from Princeton University. Dave had a distinguished career with 13 patents to his name, including the color television and the color test pattern.
Over time, color bars became even more familiar to TV viewers than the black and white equivalents. (Probably a good thing, as the black-and-white test pattern used a stereotypical image of Native Americans.)Beyond its technical reasons for existence—initially, it was used for calibration in early color televisions, and is today used as a way to ensure chroma and luminance levels in modern screens of all types—it became a pop culture icon of its own. The mobile game show HQ Trivia, for example, directly riffs on the color bars just before a game starts, integrating a modern twist on a vintage look. And Elliott Smith wrote a song about them.While the NTSC version is probably the best known, it’s not the only one that large numbers of people recognize. Outside of North America, a highly complex PAL variant developed by the electronics company Philips in the mid-1960s has frequently appeared on television in different parts of the world over the years.TV pictures eventually became much easier to keep tuned, which meant that the reasoning for the regular use of color bars and other test patterns was less essential on a regular basis, but they became a part of the fabric of modern life, especially on cable channels that didn’t have enough content to fill out an entire day.
Why does the NTSC color bar system look the way it does?Over the years, the color bar test pattern has evolved multiple times to cover different color schemes, with the basic guideline for NTSC sets managed by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. As the YouTube video highlights above, the exact sequence of color bars evolved significantly from its first appearance in 1954—in which the bottom bars, a small part of the test sequence today, once took up more than half of the screen.But even if the general design has evolved and the use case has become a bit more narrow, they remain incredibly common.
The final row (which I’m simplifying a little for sake of not going over people’s heads) contains full-intensity white block and a low-intensity black block. Along with other blocks—a dull purple and blue block that are used to ensure the color signal is being properly demodulated, and a series of short black bars, known as the “pluge pulse,” that help calibrate black levels on the monitor—the bottom row effectively works as something of a utility row to help fine-tune different settings, something shown in the Lynda.com video above.The result is that you can calibrate screens consistently and perfectly across the board—something that still matters in the world of video production, even if our modern TV sets need it less.
“When we did it, nobody thought it would last for more than a few years, because none of the other test cards had.”— Carole Hersee, known as the BBC’s “Test Card girl,” discussing how her picture, which appeared within a test card shown during dead periods on the BBC schedule for more than 30 years, making the picture of her—sitting next to a stuffed clown toy, doing a tic-tac-toe puzzle—one of the most common seen on British television. The card, shown between 1967 and 1998, disappeared from air between 1998 and 2009, at which point it returned with BBC’s HD broadcasts to help digital TV owners tune their screens. Hersee, who was 50 at the time of its reappearance, wasn’t necessarily psyched about her childhood photo making a comeback. “I am a bit bemused as I would have thought they would want to modernize it, but if they feel it is suitable to use after all these years, then fine,” she told The Telegraph.
There are test patterns hiding all over Netflix, and they’re more entertaining than some of their showsThese types of test patterns, despite not being useful for most TV owners, have never gone away. In fact, they retain much of their value in professional contexts.And if you go digging far enough on YouTube, you can find examples of test patterns being used by major networks, some of which differ greatly from the standard styles you’re used to.But those color-bar variants from CBS and NBC are nothing compared to what you can find on Netflix. Netflix, despite having no traditional broadcast component, has numerous test signals openly hanging out on its platforms, and they are fascinating.Netflix has four “seasons” of what is guaranteed to be its most ASMR show, called “Test Patterns.” For the most part, the tests are simple, showing moving images, bright colors, and simple noises. They seem like the kind of thing that we should not be able to find on Netflix, Easter eggs of a sort, but they’re so easy fo find that you don’t even need an account to view them.These test patterns are far from alone, either. There are numerous examples of tests on the service, including a test for sRGB graphics, tests of different menu styles, and examples of test footage designed for testing motion and high dynamic range.One of the greatest examples of the test footage on Netflix is an 11-minute “example show”, dating to the early 2010s and starring an actor named “Actor.” An unintentional example of the kind of content Netflix should be making, it’s an endlessly fascinating watch, as the unnamed actor runs through the Netflix headquarters, behind a water fountain, and at one point moonwalks while holding a laptop.