Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Brief History of Television

I was chatting with a young couple recently. Still taking classes and expecting their first child in the next few months, they live, like many of us did in our younger days, a pretty simple, hand-to-mouth existence. Later on, we were talking about them to some older relatives and the grim truth about their abject poverty was shared.
“They don’t have cable,” was the awful revelation.
Wow. No cable TV. Not quite like not having lights or heat, but serious stuff, all the same.
Now, this may come as a shock to some of my younger readers (do I have younger readers?), but I REMEMBER WHEN NO ONE HAD CABLE!
Admittedly, whenever I go down this kind of story-telling path, I’m reminded of the other claims I make about my childhood. Like the 17-mile, uphill walk in snow I made to and from school, the baby-blue girls’ bike I was forced to ride until my brother’s hand-me-down became available, the garden-hose hula hoop I vainly attempted to spin around my midsection, and all the other hard times I claim to have endured.
But, unlike some of those dreary tales, this one is entirely true.
Television itself was a pretty big deal when I was a kid. My dad, who was nothing if not cautious and thrifty, was a fairly late adapter to the new technology, as the sets were bulky, expensive and about as user-friendly as a chain saw, though not quite as dangerous. So, we didn’t just jump into the ranks of TV owners until he was sure the new fad would actually take hold.
Of course, we weren’t missing much, as the Galva area was served by only two, yes two, television stations, channels four and six, the CBS and NBC affiliates from the Quad Cities. I remember the anticipation surrounding the “new” station, the channel eight ABC broadcaster that went on the air in the early 60’s, as being only slightly less exciting than the furor surrounding the introduction of a new polio vaccine just a few years before. Before then, true television aficionados could up their technology to include a UHF receiver which, with a little luck and the right atmospheric conditions, could pick up the signal from the Peoria ABC station. Along with an additional channel dial, this required an extra rooftop antenna, because the signals from all the TV stations were fairly distant and kind of weak, needing a large external tower affixed to a chimney or other handy anchoring point. The result was a townscape filled with houses bristling with enough arial appendages to seemingly fill the needs of a massive World War II radar installation. Some folks (not us) were lucky enough to have a motorized gadget engaged to turn and point the thing in such a way that a mildly clear signal could be obtained, but for the rest of us, family TV watching required that one viewer sit near the set, ready to adjust the vertical and horizontal hold and perform other necessary adjustments, like whacking the set on the side, plus changing channels as required.
That was me.
As the youngest and dumbest of our brood, my required position was on the floor in front of the set. As a human remote control device, I would click from one channel to another per the demands of my family members, a high-pressure task that ensured that someone would always be mad at me.
Older Brother: “Why did you change from Spin and Marty to Heckle and Jeckle?”
Me: “I like Heckle and Jeckle.”
OB: “Here, like this!” (whack.)
In addition to the occasional nasty bruise, my job resulted in a chronic stiff neck and off-and-on blurry vision from sitting at the foot of the behemoth piece of furniture that was our old black-and-white television.
Besides the two talking magpies, my personal faves were Wes Holly, a western-style cartoon host who later quit TV to become a full-time singing cowboy, and Grandpa Happy, a slightly scary-looking dude who chortled and cackled his way through an after-school show and later broke my heart by neglecting to read my name on the air on my fifth birthday.
My mom: “I’m sure he meant to read it, but he probably just got busy at the Channel 4 Fun Factory.”
Me: (wailing) “But I told all the kids my name would be on TV.”
Mom: (big sigh) “Tell the other kids to wait a year.”
When cable TV came to town, many people jumped on the opportunity to get good reception and maybe even a couple of extra channels, most notably, Chicago’s WGN. Additional sports programming followed, along with a plethora of nature-based shows with names like “The Cockroach, Friend or Foe,” and other pithy topics. I liked those broadcasts, with my sons soon learning to mock my preference.
Son 1: “Where’s dad?”
Son 2: “He’s out back watching one of his bug shows.”
Nowadays, there’s seemingly a show--and a network, even--dedicated to almost any topic, with a growing number of special interest channels and programs ranging from food to vampires to the genre known as reality television. But, here’s the thing:
1) I’d rather eat food than watch it.
2) I’ve been scared of vampires ever since the first Dracula movie frightened the bejeebers out of me.
3) A reality show, to me, is sitting on the front porch and watching the neighbors.
So, I probably won’t head up a fundraiser to get the aforementioned young couple into the cable TV age. Instead, they’ll just have to struggle along with pedestrian pursuits like spending time together and living their very own brand of reality.
In fact, their situation still reminds of those early two-channel days I experienced back in the day.
They’re not missing much.

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