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It is one of popular culture's generational divisions: whether you are old enough to remember when television stations concluded the night's programming with "The Star-Spangled Banner." Decades ago, viewers would see a slideshow of American imagery, perhaps a mountain range or frothy shoreline and then — hours of static.

Now, the early morning hours are filled with rebroadcasts and infomercials, eliminating any practical reason for a formal sign off. But recently, television broadcasters have been reintroducing the practice of playing the national anthem once a day, pairing it with the same flavor of patriotic imagery, but in high definition and with multilayered audio.

Gray Television, which has 145 stations, mostly in small and midsize markets, made it a companywide practice several months ago. Two other companies followed: CBS, at its 27 corporate-owned stations, including those in New York and Los Angeles; and Nexstar Media Group, one of the largest owners of television stations in the country. Within five months, the national anthem has become a daily part of programming at more than 350 stations across the country. In Arkansas, Nexstar has stations in Little Rock, Fort Smith, Fayetteville, Jonesboro and El Dorado. Gray has stations in Jonesboro and El Dorado/Monroe.

Hilton H. Howell Jr., Gray's chief executive, said that he wanted to bring the anthem back to local television after decades of it being a mostly abandoned tradition. Howell, 57, grew up in a broadcasting family in Waco, Texas, and remembered the station that his grandfather founded, KWTX, signing off with the anthem around midnight and then going snowy.

Gray went through a casting process to find the right people for the video accompanying the music. The 1-minute, 45-second clip includes a 9-year-old South Florida girl, Reina Ozbay, belting the anthem into a hand-held microphone, a uniformed soldier giving a salute and a young boy with his arms wrapped around a serviceman, perhaps his father. The video flips through an array of scenery: a band of wild horses gallops across a rural expanse, a whale's tail dips into the water, a harvesting machine pushes through a field of crops, an American flag ripples in front of an industrial-looking town.

Stations owned by Gray — which stretch across the country from Fairbanks, Alaska, and West Palm Beach, Fla., to Presque Isle, Maine — play the company's national anthem video in the early morning, typically around 4 a.m., although several schedule it for a second run before or after their evening newscasts, Howell said. Nexstar stations — which now number nearly 200 after the company acquired Tribune Media Co. — and most of the CBS-owned stations also play their version of the anthem before dawn. In New York (WCBS), Los Angeles (KCBS), Chicago (WBBM), Philadelphia (KPY) and Boston (WBZ), it plays around 4:30 a.m.

Gray and Nexstar executives said the reason to bring back the anthem was simple: encouraging national unity at a time of deep division in the country and, as Howell put it, "bringing back a great tradition of television." (CBS did not make any executives available for comment.)

"This is a purely nonpolitical statement by our company," Howell said.

Fresh off World War II, the national anthem signoffs of the 1950s were filled with military images. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the Vietnam War was dividing the country, the imagery centered more often on local street scenes and community snapshots. The anthem videos produced this year include a mixture of militaristic and community-based images. CBS borrowed parts of Gray's anthem video (they were particularly impressed by the young girl's vocal rendition), adding visuals from cities where they have stations.

Nexstar has been airing a variety of anthem videos that feature aspiring singers performing the song in different musical styles. In an early version, Julia Cole, a Nashville-based country singer and 2018 American Idol contestant, performs the anthem in front of the stained glass windows of a church as images fade in and out: an American flag on an ordinary house, a construction worker looking up at the sky, what appear to be military helicopters flying over greenery.

Considering broadcasters' stated purpose of being a neutral purveyor of the news, Howell said there was trepidation among some employees about reintroducing the national anthem as a consistent feature. But the only significant complaints Howell said he heard were from viewers objecting to their clip of a soldier saluting because the camera angle made it so they could see his palm of his hand (in the U.S. military, it is a no-no to show the palm during a salute.) The scene was reshot to make sure the palm wasn't exposed.

Timothy C. Busch, president of Nexstar Broadcasting, said that the response from viewers had been overwhelmingly positive and that he was not aware of a single complaint.

"Then again," he added, "maybe they're all in bed."

Weekend on 11/21/2019

Print Headline: Local TV revives tradition: Airing national anthem

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