Sunday, June 6, 2010

Television, B.C.

I come from a far off land.

It's a land of giant adjustable rabbit ears and rooftop antennae of every shape and size. A land where mysterious tubes, carefully placed into just the right slots, were heated up and glowed brightly inside gigantic “sets” named Philco, Dumont, Muntz and Admiral to bring a black-and-white, horizontally unstable world into our living rooms.

I come from the land of Stone Age TV.

Yes, the Flintstones were there, but it goes much deeper than that. There was a time when the choices for television viewing could be counted on the fingers of one hand (with a finger or two left over for shooting rubber bands or poking your little brother out of sheer boredom).

From the early 1950s to mid-1960s, there existed just three channels plus one educational channel (so for all practical purposes to any kid ... there existed just three channels). You probably know about the great classic programs (for some reason they were called “programs” instead of “shows” back then), like The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, Sgt. Bilko and Rawhide (featuring an impossibly young Clint Eastwood as “Rowdy Yates”).

But “The Golden Age of Television” had a lot of pig iron in it, too.

There was Queen for a Day, a game show in which four women would beg for a (reasonably priced) gift of their dreams by telling the pathetic story of their lives. The audience applauded for the most heart-wrenching tale to determine the winner. I suppose a more realistic title like Poor Unfortunate Soul for 364 Days wouldn't have had the desired public appeal.

In My Mother the Car, Jerry Van Dyke's mom has died. But don't be sad. The fun lives on because she returns from the grave in the form of a 1928 Porter convertible. Jerry never saw that one coming. The mom/car's very distinctive voice is that of long-time popular actress Ann Sothern, and it's no surprise that she's determined to have a say in every wacky aspect of her son's life. Apparently someone in authority at the networks really loved this concept because years after this show was cancelled its premise more or less returned as Knight Rider.

Before he gave us The Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island (I'll leave it to you to evaluate the merits of those two), producer Sherwood Schwartz unleashed It's About Time, the tale of astronauts who accidentally break the time barrier. They wind up in a prehistoric era where they meet classic comic actors Imogene Coca and Joe E. Ross as a constantly bickering cave-couple. There were high hopes for this show's success, bolstered by the popularity of the catchy theme song. But when the original premise didn't catch the fancy of the viewing public, the astronauts managed to solve their time travel problem and brought the prehistoric pair to 20th century New York City. Come to think of it, we may be seeing the legacy of this show in those Geico caveman commercials that air every 15 minutes or so today.

I'll reserve a special category for Soupy Sales, a nightclub comic turned children's show host, who managed to be great and awful at the same time.

It's important to remember here that there were no remote controls at this time, so if we wanted to switch to another channel we had to (I swear I'm not making this up) actually get up and turn a knob!

In the mid-60s a technology came along that doubled our viewing selection. UHF introduced three new options (channels 17, 29 and 48 in the Philadelphia area). Every kid I knew got hooked on Superman reruns featuring the ill-fated George Reeves. And every kid I knew was completely stunned (and probably traumatized, if we'd known what that meant) when it somehow got leaked that “Superman” had been shot to death a few years earlier. Someone had obviously gotten the story wrong. You see, bullets bounced off him. Just ask Lois or Jimmy.

There was an international bent to the cartoons we saw on UHF. A Japanese bent, specifically, with Ultraman, Speed Racer and Kimba the White Lion competing (not very successfully) with VHF's tried-and-true Bugs Bunny, Popeye, Road Runner and Mighty Mouse. Even if the imports weren't as popular as our homegrown favorites, I suspect that our exposure to them may have broadened us in ways that are impossible to prove, demonstrate or even detect. But I'm no psychologist, so what do I know?

Of course, all of this was Television, B.C. (Before Cable).

When that wonder of science and technology was hooked up (for a “nominal fee”) HBO, known by its full name Home Box Office, brought us George Carlin cursing up a storm using the seven words he finally could say on television and Prism gave us year-old, commercial-free, unedited movies. We were in TV heaven.

However, with cable television came the creation of that uncomfortable moment when you're talking to your grandmother in the rec room as a movie is playing in the background. Suddenly and without warning, there are naked people having slow motion sex on a kitchen table (this is taking place on the TV screen, just to be clear). It takes about a minute to find the remote and switch to “regular” TV, and you always wonder if granny was embarrassed, appalled or hiding the remote the whole time.

Cable also gave birth to an explosion of channel options. Suddenly there were networks ranging from the WGN “Superstation” to MTV to CNN to Discovery Channel. And cable was the first whiff of the communication technologies that would change the way we lived our lives. Soon computers, the Internet and cell phones would follow.

But just when we thought cable was about the coolest thing ever, there came ... satellite TV. Now competition between cable and satellite resulted in hundreds of channel choices.

When the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, called Sputnik, we were all afraid that satellites would one day rain unholy terror down upon us. So far we've been lucky in that regard.

On the other hand, you could make the case that we had no idea what unholy terror really was until Sputnik's descendants, in the form of the communication satellites constantly circling the planet, rained the likes of Jersey Shore, Cheaters and Temptation Island upon us.

I suppose it's not really a shock. If three networks could produce some really bad television shows, hundreds of networks could produces hundreds of times more putrid, stinking, rotten ones. Even early on, television was called “a vast wasteland” and “the boob tube.” (Late night programming on Cinemax may have altered the meaning of the latter description, but that's a topic for another day.) Yet for some reason I have to admit that I keep watching. I just can't help myself.

It almost makes a guy wish they'd bring back My Mother the Car.


  1. Only one mistake that I can see here. My father had a remote control TV set. He would just say, "Danny, turn on channel 10."

  2. Now I see why people had more kids in the old days than they do now, Dannytheman!

  3. I'm sad to admit this -- I remember all those shows.

  4. Jack, another classic blog. Brings back memories of the big old B/W GE set we had until about 1979. Lucky for us our neighbor across the street was a TV repair man (remember those) so he was able to come over and fix the blown tubes anytime. How about when two great worlds collided-George Reeves as Superman on I Love Lucy. My mother also tells me when I was about 8 I told her the Honeymooners were a copy of the Flintstones. And what is that Discovery Channel you speak of?

  5. I hear you, Lori!

    Thanks, Robert! I love your Honeymooners/Flintstones observation ... very perceptive for an 8-year-old. (And Sgt. Bilko copied Top Cat, too.)

  6. "It's important to remember here that there were no remote controls at this time, so if we wanted to switch to another channel we had to (I swear I'm not making this up) actually get up and turn a knob!"

    Jack, depending on the age of your TV (and, I suspect, the number of kids in the household), there was a very good chance that the knob was long-since-replaced by a pair of pliers!

  7. That was absolutely the case in our house!