A few years back, I lived in a fairly small neighborhood. I lived next door to a lovely little elderly woman, and one day she asked if I could help her clean the spare room in her house. I agreed to do it, and I was surprised by the amount of old technology hidden in it. Old toys, a child's computer, you name it, it was there. What truly caught my eye, though, was a box of VHS tapes labeled 'PBS'. When I asked her about these tapes, she said that she used to record episodes of shows like Barney so that her grandson could watch them when he came over to visit in the mid to late 90s. I was curious, so I asked if I could buy the tapes off of her so I could watch them when I finished cleaning up the room. She agreed to this, and after I finished cleaning I handed her a crisp 10 dollar bill and carried the heavy box back to my house, and set it down on my couch to examine the multiple tapes that sat untouched and dusty. They were organized by the order in which they were recorded, going from 1 to 24.
That night I spent most of my time watching them out of boredom. It was around 3 am when I decided to watch one last tape and then hit the hay. Since there were 24 tapes and I had already watched 11 of them, I grabbed the one cleanly labeled Arthur #12 and wiped the dust off of its spine with my hand and popped it into my VHS player. It started out with the usual sponsors commericals that played on most other PBS shows. The sound coming from the tape was distorted from age, giving everything a robotic, slightly staticy tone. This was the only tape that had this issue so far, and I sighed, assuming that every tape from here on out would have the same issue. The episode began, and the intro was different than I had remembered. The animation was choppier and the music was less memorable than the classic rasta that accompanied most episodes. I got a bit excited at that point, thinking that maybe I had discovered an early episode that could be sold online for a pretty penny. I turned the volume up a little as the main episode started.
It began with a shot of Arthur's little sister, D.W., sitting at the kitchen table with a worried look on her little face. The animation was still choppy and low quality, but when D.W. began to speak, I was confused. Her voice was deeper and sounded like it had been recorded in someone's bathroom. Her mother walked in and began to speak to her in a harsh voice that sounded similar to the voice from the normal episodes, but not quite perfect. She was saying something about how much trouble she was in, and that she was grounded. D.W. pleaded with her mother, begging her not to ground her, but she was sent upstairs to her room. There were a few frame interruptions at that point. I gently hit the player to get it back to normal, which worked. The tape played as normal again and directly went to a strange, silent test of D.W.'s walk cycle. This lasted for maybe a minute before another frame skip occurred. When next it played D.W. sat in her room with her arms crossed. She looked a little solemn as she proceeded to talk to herself. The girl conjured up a plan in order to still have fun despite being grounded. A sly look took over her face as she stood up and walked down the hall to her parent's room. Once again, a skip occurred, and she was now looking under her parent's bed for something. The sound grew scratchy and I couldn't quite understand what she had said. The only word I heard clearly was 'play'. After this, the episode took a huge turn.
The same few frames of animation played for a couple of seconds before it showed her pulling something out from under the bed. The camera zoomed in to her hands, which were shown holding a strange blue gun of sorts. She smiled and lifted it, pointing at a wall and making a 'pew, pew' sound with it. She then ran around the room, continuing to make the gun noises. After that, D.W. sat down, tuckered out. The girl had a smile on her face as she brought the gun closer to her face to examine it with childish curiosity. She then spun it around and pointed it in her face while closing one eye to look down the barrel. A generic giggle soundclip from stock was played whilst the one frame of her with the closed eye stayed on the screen. I assumed that the videotape was stuck again. As I leaned over to tap the player my ears were met with a piercingly loud tone similar to the tone played when a broadcaster is testing their emergency system. A black overlay was placed over the episode, and it had a bit of text on it. From what I remember, it said the following:
"THE PUBLIC BROADCASTING SERVICE OF COUNTY 4: We apologize for the inconvenience. Your regularly scheduled program will return in a minute. Thank you for your patience. IN CASE OF ACCIDENTAL AIRING IMMEDIATELY STOP AND REMOVE FROM LINEUP BY 1/1/1996"
A very loud, pitchy bang sound was then played, and the tape whirred to a stop. I sat dumbfounded by what I had just seen. I didn't know whether or not to be scared or confused, but either way, I didn't know what to do. I decided to take the tape out of the machine. It was hot when it was removed, and I dropped it in order not to burn my hand. When it cooled off, I checked the tape inside of the casing to see if there was some sort of explanation for the odd skipping throughout the video. The magnetic tape had been damaged by the heat and stuck to the lid of the casing. I was feeling a bit hopeful, so I decided to stick the tape back in the player, hoping it would play once more so I could capture a picture of the episode, or at least the black overlay. I managed to take one photo on a poor quality disposable camera I had lying around. After I took the photo, the tape completely broke, and would not play again. I threw it away, and that night I tossed and turned, wondering about the story behind the episode I had just watched.
The next day, I spent most of the day Googling every little detail I remembered about it, and there was only one website that had any information at all. It was a virus-laden old forum that was closing down within the week. One of the discussions was about the episode I had seen. The creator of the thread had stated that they saw this very broadcast as a child, and it had stuck with them for years and years. According to multiple users in the thread, the best explanation for what they had seen was that it was a possible animation test made at least a year before the final show began to air. The intro and voices were placeholders, and the plot might have been about gun safety. PBS did not like the graphic nature of this plot, and so the only use of it was this test animation that accidentally aired on a Friday morning in January of 1996. It should have been destroyed by the 1st of January, but that didn't happen, either by accident, or on purpose.