Archive for August 20th, 2009

The End of the Television Era

Thanks to a post from Mookie, I’ve been thinking about TV and how it has changed.   (And Mookie’s a young guy, he probably doesn’t even remember the launching of MTV in 1981!)

Back when I was young I was told in a high school psychology class that most people dream in Black and White.   I thought that was an odd thing for the teacher to claim, since I was pretty sure I dreamed in color.   When I next had a vividly colored dream I reported it to the teacher, wondering if perhaps I had a special sort of mind that broke through the color barrier.   Turns out that my Psych teacher was part of a unique generation — the black and white TV generation.   People born in the early era of TV somehow learned to dream in black and white, like TV shows.

On a morning in 1968, I was spared that fate.  The telephone rang and my Grandma told me and my sister to go down to the TV room.  That room (which later that year would become my bedroom after my second sister was born) was where we got together as a family to watch shows like Batman, Lost in Space, or a movie like PT109 (about JFK in WWII).   It was a Saturday morning, cartoon time, so we wasted no time running downstairs.    I still remember stopping as my jaw dropped in amazement as the cartoon version of “The Lone Ranger” was on.   IN COLOR!  My Grandma had bought us a color TV.

My Grandma lived in Mankato, MN, in an apartment over a men’s clothing store.   She worked at a store called Buttreys as a manager, and we thought she had the best of all worlds.   A cool downtown apartment (with a great metal staircase going up the side of the building), lots of nice neighbors who would give us ice cream, and a color TV.   When we visited, we’d rush to watch whatever was on, often Johnny Carson late at night.  I still recall the jingle for Channel 11 out of Minneapolis “Metromedia television, 11, 11, 11….”   In those days the color shows had a “C” in the TV Guide next to them.  My Grandma also had something rare — cable television.  Rural areas were experimenting with ways to expand the number of stations received, and Mankato happened to have an early cable system in the mid-sixties (she got about nine stations, I believe).

It was in Mankato where I saw Johnny Carson have Raquel Welch as a guest.   She came out with a cat, and she said, “would you like to pet my pussy,” and he replied, “sure, if you move that damn cat.”   Google this incident and it’s listed as an urban legend that didn’t happen.   There are no tapes from many of those episodes, what was on live dissipated as soon as the image flashed on the screen, there is no record.   As far as history is concerned, Carson and Welch managed to get that scene categorized as “never having happened.”   But I saw it.  I know.   I also remember when Heidi, a movie about a Swiss girl, interrupted an exciting football playoff game — you know that wouldn’t happen now.

Sioux Falls didn’t get cable until 1974, but we enjoyed having a real color TV.   After school I’d watch shows like Star Trek, Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie, and Hogan’s Heroes.   The TV moved to our basement rec room after the TV room became my bedroom.   I had the only downstairs bedroom, though, so I could sneak out and watch shows like Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock, the Twilight Zone, and Johnny Carson.  And, of course, with only a few stations, everyone watched the same shows.    All the school kids watched Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer the one night it was on, or my favorite, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.   By high school we were talking every Monday about 60 Minutes, and the way they caught some corrupt person red handed.

Television changed the country.   I recall watching All in the Family from the start in 1970, and despite being so young, appreciating that it was a new kind of sitcom — reflecting the times.   Maude, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, and that great sitcom with Valerie Bertenelli  (mom and two daughters, handman Schneider…can’t recall the name of the show, MacKenzie Phillips was the other daughter).  After I got over my crush on Marcia from The Brady Bunch, I was in love with Valerie.   Television was our pop culture, it reflected changing values, especially as my all time favorite show, MASH pushed the boundaries of how to deal with issues like war and patriotism.   But perhaps my favorite were the mystery movies — Columbo, Banacek, Macmillan and Wife. Banacek (George Peppard) was really cool, he had a phone in his car!

The 80s saw a continuation of the TV era…St. Elsewhere, Hillstreet Blues, Cheers, The Cosby Show (Thursday night was the original Must See TV on NBC)…but yet, change was afoot.  Suddenly the cable systems were offering 50 or more channels, with a “cable box” (since TVs only went to channel 13).   A 24 hour news station, CNN, was introduced, with swift and surprising success.   MTV came out when I was 21, and I soon found myself addicted to watching that cool new art form, the music video.   For a brief time, this fragmentation co-existed with a solid core of heavily watched network TV.

By the 90s cable was into the hundreds of stations.   People had been buying satellite dishes — huge expensive pieces of equipment to tap into satellites.   For awhile, this brought the few who could afford such a thing a massive amount of TV — until stations started to scramble their signals.   Soon mini-dishes with services like Dishnet and Direct TV took over.   Now with DVRs, programming is so fragmented that TV rarely offers that cultural window that it did in the past.  It is to the current generation what radio was to mine — useful at times, but not primary.

It was the internet, combining with massive fragmentation, that altered television forever.   The era of television ended sometime in the mid-nineties, as the internet started to take over.    The “Tuesday Night Movie” that might be watched by a good chunk of the country — a TV release of last year’s theater favorite — became irrelevant as DVD rentals and now video on demand via computer allowed one to watch films uncensored for TV, and without commercials.   The Saturday morning cartoon ritual became replaced by multiple cartoon stations repeating the same shows over and over, all day long.  Even young kids are shifting from TV to the internet.

I enjoyed the television era.  From the classic commercials (“I Can’t Believe I ate the whole thing…”) to 80% of the country tuning in to Walter Cronkite to get the thirty minutes of evening news, it was a charming and culturally significant part of Americana.    Of course television, like radio before, isn’t going to disappear.  Radio found its niches — music, talk radio, sports, morning weather reports, etc. — and television will continue to have its niche appeal.   Parents won’t worry about kids watching too much TV, they’ll monitor internet time.    Kids will watch old shows at time for fun, laughing at of Star Trek episodes, so politically incorrect according to today’s sensibilities, but groundbreakingly progressive in the mid-sixties.

Robert Plant’s 1980s song “Little by Little, everything changes” jumps in my head a lot these days.   Back in the 80s it seemed that TV would be the entertainment mode of the future, and all technological advances would go via the television.   Now, it has been pushed aside by a digital mass media age that changes everything about how people entertain themselves, network, communicate and interact.   And, while it’s tempting to decry the change, I remember days in high school, bored at home at night…watching TV, writing stories, reading…what I wouldn’t have given to be able to go on line and connect!