Dead air is a broadcasting term for the unintentional absence of scheduled content. In television broadcasting, for example, it refers to a blank or frozen screen or silence on the audio track. In radio, where the term originated, it means a complete lack of sound. It usually results from technical glitches, equipment failure, or mistakes by station staff. Stations sometimes program dead air intentionally, but this is rare, as it is considered something of a cardinal sin among broadcast professionals.
Radio broadcasting began in the early 20th century, followed soon after by the first television transmissions. By the 1940s, radio enjoyed worldwide popularity, providing millions with entertainment, information, and communication. Television was still in its infancy when the phrase dead air was first recorded in 1942. By the 1950s, television had begun to replace radio as the most popular communications medium. The advertising model for broadcast media was firmly in place by this time, meaning that any gap in programming represented a loss of revenue for the station in question.
By the 1970s, many AM and FM radio stations broadcast on a 24-hour cycle. Television stations, however, often broadcast dead air in the late-night and early-morning hours, when viewership was low, to save money on personnel and programming. By the 21st century, marketing concerns had taken over, and all 24 hours of a TV station’s broadcast day were filled with shows, news, or advertising. Most modern stations will try to avoid dead air for any reason, because of the loss of revenue and the potential loss of viewership. Accidents do happen, however; many stations employ a banner reading “Please stand by” or “Technical difficulties” in the event of a broadcast interruption so viewers know the situation is a temporary one.
In a notorious incident in 1987, CBS national news anchor Dan Rather left his desk before a telecast, believing his show would be delayed by a televised tennis match. When the match ended early, his show started at the regular time, but Rather could not be located. The situation was so unexpected that the network broadcast six minutes of dead air to a national audience, an almost unprecedented event, before Rather returned to his desk. In 2011, by contrast, a Wisconsin TV station deliberately broadcast several hours of dead air. The station owners were fans of the Green Bay Packers, who were playing in a national football championship on another channel, and didn’t wish to draw viewers away from the game.
The phrase is often used as a title or pun. American broadcaster Bob Larson used the term as the title for his 1991 novel, as did Scottish novelist Iain Banks for a book of his own in 2002. Several different radio shows dedicated to legendary rock combo the Grateful Dead have taken the title as well. Dead Air is also the title of at least three different low-budget horror films, including a zombie movie released in 2009.