Tuesday, November 15, 2011

This is a test... this is only a test

You couldn't watch the news earlier this month without hearing all about the nationwide emergency alert scheduled for November 9.

I suppose I never knew that these frequent tests weren't national in scope before this month.

The tests were initiated during the Cold War. In case the Reds pushed THE BUTTON, serious-looking announcers were supposed to "interrupt this broadcast" to provide the bad news -- and offer helpful tips about what to do and where to go to shelter against the coming nuclear winter. Somehow, I doubt that would have happened. More likely, the serious-looking announcers would have headed for the hills as soon as the teletype message became clear. I can see the last two guys in the studio -- one with his hat and coat on -- trying to persuade the other to make the announcement. "You've always wanted to go on camera," he'd say. "This is your big chance."

And maybe the soap opera would have been interrupted, finally, by a scared, pimply young man, hair uncombed and tie askew, saying, "Are we on?" There there would have been that impossibly bright flash... and the Stone Age would have restarted.

Fortunately, the Reds these days aren't likely to push THE BUTTON (although, some day, they may CALL THEIR LOANS -- which would be just as fatal, if slower). Yet we still have the Emergency Broadcast System. But why? In case the government needs to warn us that someone or something has come looking for what didn't crash at Roswell in 1947?

No, come to think of it, I doubt the government would want to tell us that flying saucers were coming, even if someone in authority were persuaded it was real. Think of the panic in the streets -- the probable riots. And, besides, it would probably depress the heck out of the stock market.

No, we continue to have this national Emergency Broadcast System because... because... because... because we have it, OK? And it had never been tested nationally, and so, all other national problems having been fully and fairly resolved, the government decided to test it on November 9. And everybody needed to be warned because every TV channel and radio station was going to carry the same warning and people might be scared. (Where did Judge Judy go? Did Kim Kardashian get remarried?)

Long Suffering Spouse and I were quite sick of the repeated warnings about the forthcoming test as last Wednesday neared. How much repetition is necessary? Who could possibly misunderstand that they'd miss 90 or 120 seconds of Maury or a soap opera on Wednesday and that it meant absolutely nothing except that the government was just trying to see if the system worked? We'd just seen still another warning on the news Tuesday evening when the phone rang.

It was my mother-in-law.

"Did you know there's going to be a blackout tomorrow?" she asked, breathlessly. "Should I turn off my computer? Do I have to unplug my refrigerator?" Not satisfied with the saturation news coverage, the police department in Abuela's nearby Chicago suburb decided to call all the seniors in town with a prerecorded message. I don't know exactly what was said -- but it was the call from the police that prompted her call to us.

Long Suffering Spouse talked her in off the ledge. "Mom, it's just the test on the TV and radio tomorrow."

"The test?"

"The Emergency Broadcasting System. You know -- 'this is a test, this is only a test?'"

"A test like that? Like they do all the time?"

"Yes, Mom."

"Why are they making such a big deal of that?"

"I don't know, Mom."

"The power will stay on?"

"Yes, Mom."

And the best part of the test? Go back to the linked article at the top of the page. From a civil libertarian's perspective, the most comforting thing about the government's attempt to control all broadcast communication in the nation didn't work particularly well. According to the linked story on Yahoo! News (by Mark Clayton, originally for the Christian Science Monitor), "In some cases the disclaimer was broadcast. In other cases the message was missing altogether or did not include the audio caveat. * * * It has also been reported that a Lady Gaga song played through the test period for some viewers." Clayton also quoted this Tweet: "Did not see it on Comcast in Northern Virginia. Instead, saw about 30 seconds of QVC (was watching MSNBC at test time)." And people watching kitten videos on YouTube or blowing up dragons on World of Warcraft never knew about it either.

1 comment:

Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

i remember as a child having to go into the hallway and lean against the lockers and put our hands behind our necks. why? i have no idea but we did it periodically so we all knew what to do in case of, um, whatever.

smiles, bee