Three tone sound on 80s/90s cable channel. What did it mean?
January 11, 2004 6:20 PM   Subscribe

This doesn't happen any more, but I distinctly remember in the late '80s-early '90s cable channels would sometimes be interrupted by a three-tone almost digital sound (akin to pressing three touch-tone numbers in rapid succesion). What the hell was this sound for?

My guess is something to do with telling local cable operators something about when they could insert local ads, but I'm not sure. Please tell me it wasn't just a voice in my head.
posted by owillis to Technology (12 answers total)
I don't know, but I remember. It sounded like the future to me.
posted by grabbingsand at 6:22 PM on January 11, 2004

The future is over, sorry dude.
posted by billsaysthis at 6:41 PM on January 11, 2004

It still happens on Wisconsin NPR, right before station identification. I've always wondered what it means, too.
posted by interrobang at 6:48 PM on January 11, 2004

It's a signal for local content to be inserted. We had something similar in radio, during network broadcasts of sports games. A guy will sit there and wait for tones and obvious commercial breaks, and play local content.

More than once (when the network feed was down), I'd actually *rebroadcast* another network station's signal, and "stomp" all over their commercials with mine.
posted by mrbill at 7:17 PM on January 11, 2004

A guy will sit there and wait for tones and obvious commercial breaks, and play local content.

It's called a DTMF tone, and you've guessed exactly what it's used for (to signal an impending local break), but it's generally all automated now, without the need for a guy to sit there and listen. The tone will trigger a tape loader to cue up and play the next spot on the tape X number of seconds after the second of the two tones.
posted by briank at 7:28 PM on January 11, 2004

Ah, thank you. You don't know how much its bothered me. I remember it being on Nickelodeon a lot (during You Can't Do That On Television). I sorta miss it.
posted by owillis at 7:45 PM on January 11, 2004

You Can't Do That On Television -- hooray! What a cool show that was, back in the day before Nick turned into a wasteland.
posted by davidmsc at 8:48 PM on January 11, 2004

Most of the signals now for both TV and radio are either digital or sub-audible. As mentioned before they act as cues or triggers for local programming at the affiliate or cable system end of a network feed.
posted by marcusb at 9:34 PM on January 11, 2004

Makes me think of the Today Show's Al Roker's vocal cue to local hand-off "Here's what's happening in your neck of the woods".
posted by kokogiak at 11:22 PM on January 11, 2004

Okay, spooky, I opened this thread just to post the answer and to say that I remembered it from YCDToT too. I'm now awaiting my shower of green slime.
posted by Dreama at 1:44 AM on January 12, 2004

thinking of that sound made me remember something: when i first watched nick i think i remember A & E would come on the same channnel at night
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 8:22 AM on January 12, 2004

Taking the long way around a thread here, but my local cable provider still splits E! airtime with CSPAN. Lucky there's such a large crossover audience.
posted by ahughey at 11:44 AM on January 12, 2004

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