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The NBC chimes, named for the radio and television network on which they have been used, consists of a succession of three distinct pitches: G3, E4, and C4 (middle C), sounded in that order, creating an arpeggiated C-major chord in the second inversion, within about two seconds time, and reverberating for another two or three seconds. The intervals of this progression are up a major 6th from G3 to E4 and down a major third from E4 to C4. The chimes were the first ever audio trademark to be accepted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Contrary to widespread belief, the "G-E-C" sequence is not a reference to the General Electric Company, which did not acquire NBC until 1986; however, GE's radio station WGY in Schenectady, New York, was an early affiliate of the NBC Red Network, and GE was an early shareholder in RCA, which founded NBC by creating it as a subsidiary.
The chimes were originally used as a cue for radio stations across the network to begin broadcasting their station identifications or local feeds. After their use as a formal network communications signal ended around the 1970s as the result of automation, the chimes has been used ever since as an audio logo or signature for NBC.
An elegant solution: the station break
The chimes were originally conceived to help solve a problem inherent in early network radio broadcasting: the vast majority of which was live, rather than pre-recorded. At the top of each hour, any individual broadcaster (on radio, television or other broadcast band) must identify itself by their callsign and the name of the community where its broadcast license has been issued, in compliance with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations. For example: "This is WHYY, Philadelphia." Therefore it might seem efficient for a small radio network (three to seven stations, for instance) to accomplish this chore by having a single announcer "on the network", whose voice is transmitted to all the local stations, read the short list of local callsigns and corresponding communities for about ten seconds each hour, during an extended broadcast period. However, this practice becomes quite inefficient as a network grows, consuming valuable commercial airtime. Hence it was determined in early big-network radio days that this job, among others, had to be done locally, on a pre-determined cue from the network itself.
The simplest way to accomplish this is with a spoken announcement (sometimes called an outcue), and its special format has a familiar ring. For instance: "We pause now for ten seconds for station identification: this is the NBC Television Network". This phrasing alerts a local announcer to put him/herself on the air and formally identify the local station. Today, broadcast for four hours live every weekday on NBC television, uses a special spoken outcue for station breaks: "This is Today on NBC." Indeed, as a public relations technique, this task is often offered to a member of the live audience assembled in Rockefeller Plaza outside the Today studio. For the network pioneers at NBC in the late 1920s, a more simple, elegant and consistent solution than an announcer's voice, with its individual distinctiveness, was sought.
It was decided by a three-person committee (consisting of NBC chief engineer Oscar B. Hanson, a former engineer of AT&T; Ernest LaPrade, an NBC orchestra leader; and NBC announcer Phillips Carlin) that the simplest way to do this would be to create a musical cue which would sound to signal the end of programs. Essentially, NBC wished to brand itself in sound, a sound that any listener would immediately recognize.
The chimes came to their familiar configuration and sound after several years of on-air development. They were first broadcast over NBC's Red and Blue networks on November 29, 1929. However, there are disagreements about the original source of the idea. One story is that they came from WSB in Atlanta, Georgia, which allegedly used it for its own purposes until one day someone at NBC's headquarters in New York City heard the WSB version of the notes during a networked broadcast of a Georgia Tech football game and asked permission to use it on the national network.
The company tested the chimes during 1927 and 1928, when it experimented with several possible combinations of notes. The first sequence consisted of the seven notes G-C-G-E-G-C-E. However, since the original NBC chime was an actual set of four-note chimes made by the J.C. Deagan Company, which the announcer would play 30 seconds before the end of every half-hour to signal the end of a program, it was left to the announcers to play this trademark sequence without error, which was unavoidable with such a lengthy cue. The chime sequence was shortened to G-C-G-E and then, on November 29, 1929, the cue was shortened for the final time, and the three well-known notes G-E-C were heard on NBC radio for the first time.
Despite the relative simplicity and efficiency of the new, shorter chime sequence, problems still existed in other musical aspects of the sequence, such as the tempo, rhythm, and volume at which it was played, as well as the musical tone of the set chimes. Therefore the NBC chimes were mechanized in 1932 with a unit that could play the sequence perfectly and consistently. Richard H. Ranger, a former Radio Corporation of America (RCA) engineer who also invented an early form of the modern fax machine, invented the NBC chime machine that generated the notes by means of finely tuned metal reeds that were plucked by fingers on a revolving drum, much like a music box.
NBC had several of these chime machines made which they set up at major network locations across the country, including Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago and San Francisco (which actually had two machines, a main one and a backup). It is estimated that no more than a dozen of these machines were ever made, and even fewer are currently in existence.
The technical purpose of the mechanical chimes was to send a low level audio signal of constant amplitude that would be heard by the various switching stations manned by NBC and AT&T engineers, but not disturb the listening audience. This would serve as the system cue for switching the myriad local stations between the NBC Red Network and NBC Blue Network feeds as scheduled, as well as signalling the pause for local station identification immediately thereafter. In essence, it was the audio equivalent of a traffic signal. Because of fears of offending commercial sponsors by cutting their live network programs off mid-sentence, the mechanized chimes were always rung by an announcer pushing a button in conjunction with the program’s conclusion; they were never set to an automatic timer, although heavy discussions on the subject were held between the Engineering and Programming departments throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
On November 20, 1947, NBC filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to make the chimes a registered service mark for identification of radio broadcasting services, the first such audible service mark to be filed with that office. Registration was granted on April 4, 1950; the registration number was 0523616, serial number 71541873. This registration expired on November 3, 1992, as NBC Radio became part of broadcasting history. However a separate service mark registration was made in 1971 for identification of television broadcasting services (serial 72349496, registration 0916522). While this registration is still active, the chime was heard for the final time on the NBC television channel in 1976, the 50-year anniversary of the chime; the chime is now used only for various smaller purposes on the network.
The chimes go modern
Their use as a formal network communications signal ended around 1971, the result of automation. The NBC television network's flagship station WNBC in New York City kept the sound of the chimes alive, though. In 1974, it incorporated the sequence into the opening of its synthesized theme music for its local newscasts, NewsCenter 4 (sharpening the pitch by a half-step). The stinger was heard at the opens to the station's 5, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts. Eventually, NBC Radio adopted WNBC-TV's NewsCenter 4 stinger as its top-of-the-hour news sounder. With alterations (and a brief interruption in the early 1990s), WNBC has used a form of the chimes on its newscasts ever since.
The music used on NewsCenter 4, "NBC Radio-TV Newspulse" (composed by Fred Weinberg), was later used for NBC Nightly News in the 1970s and NBC News bulletins/special reports in the 1970s and 1980s. The usage of the NBC chimes continues in local newscasts on NBC stations to this day, in fact many NBC stations play the chimes sequence at the end of the main weather segment within the newscast, when the extended forecast is shown.
In 1976, the chimes were revived nationally in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the network. Modern musical versions of the three-note chimes are still in popular use on the NBC radio and television networks (and are the opening and closing notes of the current edition of the NBC Nightly News theme song), as well as in the closing logo for NBCUniversal Television Distribution, the television production arm of NBC's current immediate parent, NBCUniversal.
From 1982 to the early 1990s, most NBC voiceover promos at the end of network shows would begin with the chimes. From 1982 to 1987, the chimes would blend into an instrumental version of the promo slogan that NBC would be using at the time.
Today made the chimes the centerpiece of its theme in 1978, resolving a legal dispute between the network and the composers of the musical Godspell. The musical composers felt that the Ray Ellis-penned closing theme Today, which had been used since 1971 (and was also used as the show's opening theme starting in 1976), was lifted from the classic Godspell song "Day by Day." Using the chimes as his template, Ellis composed a new theme song, which stuck. Although Today has used a segment from John Williams' NBC News music package The Mission since 1985, Ellis's revised composition has been used on and off during portions of Today ever since.
NBC News uses a version of the original chimes for special breaking news reports that interrupt regular programming on the network and/or its stations (the tendency of this version to precede major events has nicknamed it the 'Chimes of Doom') .
NBC's on-air promotions for the fall 2008 television season featured the chimes prominently alongside the new slogan "Chime In". Several used alternate versions tied to specific shows' themes: for example, ringing telephones for The Office; the ringing of cash registers for Deal or No Deal; and objects striking metal for America's Toughest Jobs. Similarly, the chimes have also been used for select promotions during the fall 2012 season.
The use of chimes as an audio logo is not unique, as other broadcasters, including Britain's ATV, Mexico's Televisa Canal de las Estrellas and the Philippines' ABS-CBN have used similar chimes. The Canal de las Estrellas chimes, for example, consist of eight musical notes.
The chimes quoted in music
Many composers have used the NBC chimes as their signature for their news packages, many of which were made exclusively for NBC stations. Some songwriters have quoted the sequence as well, and NBC-owned radio stations such as WNBC (AM) incorporated the melody into their station ID jingle packages. A few examples include:
- "NBC Stations" by Edd Kalehoff
- "It's a New Day" by 615 Music
- "The Tower" by 615 Music
- "The Rock" by Stephen Arnold
- "The NBC Collection" by Gari Media Group
- "L.A. Groove" by Groove Worx
- "Nothing But Class and The Only One by JAM Creative Productions
- "Let's Go" by Ray Charles on his 1961 album Genius+Soul=Jazz
- "Do Your Thing" by Isaac Hayes
- "Here's Love" from the Meredith Willson musical Here's Love. It plays during the lyric "CBS to NBC."
The "Fourth Chime"
The variant sequence B - D + G = G, based on a G-major arpeggio in second inversion, was known as "the fourth chime". An NBC Interdepartment Correspondence memo, dated April 7, 1933, documents the conception and initial purpose of the fourth chime. The memo states "In anticipation of the Spring and Summer months, when many in key positions will not always be available at home telephones, the following Emergency Call System will go into effect on Monday morning, April 16." The memo goes on to say that whenever a fourth tone is heard on the network chimes rung at 15-minute intervals, it will indicate that someone on an attached list is wanted. Upon hearing this fourth chime, all personnel on the list are instructed to call in to the PBX operator to ascertain whether or not the Emergency Call is for them. The chime would continue at 15-minute intervals over stations WEAF and WJZ until the wanted person communicated with the PBX operator. The list contained the names of the following NBC executives:
- John F. Royal
- John W. Elwood
- Frank Mason
- J. de Jara Almonte
The list also included names of personnel from Engineering, Press, Programming, Traffic, and Service departments.
The "fourth chime" was also used to notify affiliates and their employees of pending urgent programming. This variant saw such use during wartime (especially in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor) and other disasters, most notably the Hindenburg disaster in 1937. According to NBC historians, the last official use of the "fourth chime" was in 1945, shortly after the end of World War II. However, according to a handwritten note appended to an NBC internal memo originally dated 1964 on the history and usage of the standard chime, this chime variant was used one final time in 1985 to symbolize the merger with GE. This recording of this variant exists, made on June 6, 1944 as the network awaited official Allied confirmation of the invasion of France.