A test card, also known as a test pattern or start-up/closedown test, is a television test signal, typically broadcast at times when the transmitter is active but no program is being broadcast (often at sign-on and sign-off). Used since the earliest TV broadcasts, test cards were originally physical cards at which a television camera was pointed, and such cards are still often used for calibration, alignment, and matching of cameras and camcorders. Test patterns used for calibrating or troubleshooting the downstream signal path are these days generated by test signal generators, which do not depend on the correct configuration (and presence) of a camera, and can also test for additional parameters such as sync, frames per second, and frequency. Digitally generated cards allow vendors, viewers and television stations to adjust their equipment for optimal functionality. The audio broadcast while test cards are shown is typically a sine wave tone, radio (if associated or affiliated with the television channel) or music (usually instrumental, though some also broadcast with jazz or popular music). More recently, the use of test cards has also expanded beyond television to other digital displays such as large LED walls and video projectors.
Test cards typically contain a set of patterns to enable television cameras and receivers to be adjusted to show the picture correctly (see SMPTE colour bars). Most modern test cards include a set of calibrated colour bars which will produce a characteristic pattern of "dot landings" on a vectorscope, allowing chroma and tint to be precisely adjusted between generations of videotape or network feeds. SMPTE bars--and several other test cards--include analog black (a flat waveform at 7.5 IRE, or the NTSC setup level), full white (100 IRE), and a "sub-black", or "blacker-than-black" (at 0 IRE), which represents the lowest low-frequency transmission voltage permissible in NTSC broadcasts (though the negative excursions of the colourburst signal may go below 0 IRE). Between the colour bars and proper adjustment of brightness and contrast controls to the limits of perception of the first sub-black bar, an analogue receiver (or other equipment such as VTRs) can be adjusted to provide impressive fidelity.
They are also used in the broader context of video displays for concerts and live events. There are a variety of different test patterns, each testing a specific technical parameter: gradient monotone bars for testing brightness and colour; a crosshatch pattern for aspect ratio, alignment, focus, and convergence; and a single-pixel border for over-scanning and dimensions.
Formerly a common sight, test cards are now only rarely seen outside of television studios, post-production, and distribution facilities. In particular, they are no longer intended to assist viewers in calibration of television sets. Several factors have led to their demise for this purpose:
In developed countries such as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the financial imperatives of commercial television broadcasting mean that air-time is now typically filled with programmes and commercials (such as infomercials) 24 hours a day, and non-commercial broadcasters have to match this.
In North America, most test cards such as the famous Indian-head test pattern of the 1950s and 1960s have long been relegated to history. The SMPTE colour bars occasionally turn up, but with most North American broadcasters now following a 24-hour schedule, these too have become a rare sight. For custom-designed video installations, such as LED displays in buildings or at live events, some test images are custom-made to fit the specific size and shape of the setup in question. These custom test images can also be an opportunity for the technicians to hide inside jokes for the crew to see while installing equipment for a show.
Rather than physical test cards, which had to be televised using a camera, television stations often used a special purpose camera tube which had the test pattern painted on the inside screen of the tube. Each tube was only capable of generating the one test image, hence it was called a monoscope.
Monoscopes were similar in construction to an ordinary cathode ray tube (CRT), only instead of displaying an image on its screen it scanned a built-in image. The monoscope contained a formed metal target in place of the phosphor coating at its "screen" end and as the electron beam scanned the target, rather than displaying an image, a varying electrical signal was produced generating a video signal from the etched pattern. Monoscope tubes had the advantage over test cards that a full TV camera was not needed, and the image was always properly framed and in focus. They fell out of use in the 1960s as they were not able to produce colour images.
A lesser-known kind of test pattern is used for the calibration of photocopiers. Photocopier test patterns are physical sheets that are photocopied, with the difference in the resulting photocopy revealing any telltale deviations or defects in the machine's ability to copy.
Television has had such an impact in today's life that it has been the main motif for numerous collectors' coins and medals. One of the most recent examples is The 50 Years of Television commemorative coin minted on 9 March 2005, in Austria. The obverse of the coin shows a "test pattern", while the reverse shows several milestones in the history of television.
The Philips Pattern is widely recognized as one of the iconic popular culture symbols of the 1980s and 1990s. Numerous novelty and collectible items has been patterned after the famous test card, including wall clocks, bedsheets, wristwatches, and clothing.