So, the other night I see a commercial. Some 12 year old is lecturing her younger siblings about how when she was young, if she wanted to see a show and dad was on the couch snoring, she had to live with it. She follows that up with how lucky “their generation” is that they aren’t constricted by cables and cords (or having to overcome the snoring) and how their generation has it made. The younger ones, of course, look at her as though she has three heads.
It cracks me up every time I see it.
I grew up with knobs and dials and antennae (or the ever useful coat hanger tipped to just the right angle, usually held by one’s little sister in an improbable pose), and OMG! FML! black and white TV. But hey, ya know, YOLO, and that was mine, at least a portion of my one life. Television was not a 24/7 thing. It came on sometime early in the morning, maybe 6AM although I don’t remember, and went off sometime in late night, maybe midnight or 2AM depending on where you lived. I don’t mean the TV set, I mean the stations, all the stations. A show ended, small video of a flag waving with the Star Spangled Banner playing came on and that was followed by a test pattern. The End. Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.
When I grew up a television set was in the box, literally, usually a nice maple box with a screen that was curved at the top and bottom with vertical sides set in it, unless you had a “portable” TV which usually looked not like furniture but like a something that landed on Earth in a B sci fi movie, and weighed at least ten pounds. (The discussion on weight of the thing in this house has arrived at that median. It certainly wasn’t portable in an iPod kind of way.) There was one television set in the house. One. In the living room. There were three channels, unless you were lucky and had some kind of UHF (kids, know what that even is?) ability which usually required an adapter and yet another antenna. That was really the ritz. UHF. The Ritz. You had to get up off the floor or couch to change the channel or volume by turning a knob, or clicking a numbered dial to the channel. ::::::::::Don’t touch that dial, kids! Captain Kangaroo will be right back after a word from our sponsors!::::::::::
There was a magazine, called the TV Guide, which could be purchased at the grocery store or could be subscribed to. It would be delivered every week and included interviews with TV stars along with a week’s worth of TV listings on all the channels available in your area. This, my dears, was the Television Bible. Back then a star in a popular show would know he or she had really made it if they made the cover of the TV Guide. There was also a crossword puzzle in the back that was TV themed, so you had to know the shows and the stars’ names to complete it properly. I was, for the record, a whiz.
There were certain shows that every family watched: Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Lassie, I Love Lucy, Dr. Kildare, Combat, Gunsmoke (a little racy what with the saloon girls and Miss Kitty). Kids watched Mickey Mouse Club and Captain Kangaroo and lots of great cartoons. Our parents watched The Honeymooners, Jack Benny, Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar, Red Skelton, Ben Casey and later Peyton Place, deemed way too risque for a kid. There were Friday night boxing matches (I remember hearing my dad hollering the night Sonny Liston lost to Cassius Clay, now known far and wide as Muhammed Ali, whom he hated.) The Tonight Show was hosted by Steve Allen or Jack Paar, then eventually Johnny Carson, but that was a ways off. We watched Ricky Nelson grow up on camera as Ozzie and Harriet went on for years.
Everyone watched Ed Sullivan. Elvis was a shock. The Beatles were a seismic shift. It was all okay because there were also guys spinning plates and Topo Gigio, a talking mouse puppet, along with all the great comics of the day. I still remember Richard Pryor doing Rumpelstifskin (yes, it was Rumplestifskin, not Rumpelstilskin), and Allen King always cracked me up.
Yeah. I’m old. These are names that need to be dusted off, hit with a mildew remover, searched on YouTube.
As I grew older I hurried home from school to watch the Monkees, Batman and Dark Shadows. Eventually that became Shindig, and Hullabaloo and the ever wonderful American Bandstand. Actually, American Bandstand is absolutely older than the Monkees or Batman. It was the show we watched as little kids to see what the big kids were doing. On Saturdays cartoons like Bullwinkle and Mighty Mouse, all the Hanna Barbara and Warner Brothers characters were there, every Saturday morning like clockwork. That was usually followed by jungle movies, Tarzan or some finding treasure in the dangerous, jungle “Bwana” movies. Lots of chimpanzees and cannibals, we didn’t notice how imperialistic they actually were, we just wondered if that lion was going to eat the Great White Hunter. If you stayed with it you’d be treated to Frankenstein and Dracula, the Werewolf and the Tingler. A movie called Earth vs The Spider was one that stuck in my memory. By today’s standards it’s tame, but check it out on YouTube (the entire movie is there, just watch the credits and listen to the intro music then imagine yourself being about 9 years old.) By 1PM on a Saturday you’d seen lots of things that piqued your imagination. All, all, in black and white with terrible special effects if compared to the CGI of today, but they sure scared the pants off us then.
As TV evolved we got to Outer Limits and the glorious Twilight Zone. The original Star Trek was amazing to us, and by that time most of us had color TV. Wow.
It was wonderful entertainment, but it was also viewed mostly as a family. (I skipped over the really awesome Playhouse 90’s, and Kraft Theatre productions of remarkable material as that was for adults, after my bedtime so I didn’t see that stuff til I was a grown woman.) Once a show was decided on, and there was precious little deciding to be done, the entire family sat in a room and watched the show. Together. As a group. It was discussed (not formally, but using lots of asides to one’s sister or an elbow jab if the Beaver knocked over a vase and you’d done it too and I’ll tell Mom about it if you don’t give me your Hershey bar—okay, not so much a discussion as a blackmail negotiation). There were some more formal discussions, usually a parent clucking about see what happens if you don’t listen to us and you fall down the well and we don’t HAVE Lassie to come and get us and save you. Parents held all the cards in terms of what was or was not watched. Nevertheless, with the exception of Saturday mornings, watching television was a group experience.
As my daughter grew up, we were well into color TV, cable even and Blockbuster video. We kept up with the technology, but she wasn’t allowed a TV in her room until she was nearly 16. Even she grew up with TV as a group experience, and while the choices were exponentially greater than when I grew up, and it absolutely was 24/7 by then, there was still a sense of community in the watching. I didn’t censor much while she was growing up. I felt that a lot of what my mother wouldn’t possibly have let me watch might be worth talking about. My daughter’s generation wasn’t as sheltered or as limited as mine.
Now I see the 12 year old lecturing her siblings. I see the commercials about TV viewing in every room, with everyone going to their respective corners, watching whatever they want whenever they want and streaming it on their phones at recess. The Cox Communications dad manically running through the house hollering, “Whole Home Partay” or asking his son if he’s watching something he recorded earlier. The boy is in his room. The dad is watching something on his tablet, while the mom is watching something else in the kitchen, and the sister is holed up with her flat screen in the bedroom. It bothers me.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a total TV addict. Yup. There. I said it. Out loud. Give me a TCM Oscar run up day and I’m sunk. Nothing gets done. I have my guilty pleasures like true crime nonsense, did he do it, oh yeah, he totally did. I love On Demand, Netflix, and lord knows how many dollars Amazon Streaming has gotten out of me. I watch on the one TV in the living room and on any of the computers available to me. I hate reality shows, love TV dramas (well some of them), and am a sucker for a good movie.
I still think, though, that the family unit has lost something in the translation. Everyone seems to be by themselves, no sharing of the laugh or the music or the is Sky Masterson gonna get there in time, is the Lone Ranger gonna save the day, is Superman gonna get Kryptonited this week by the dastardly villain. No shared suspense. No shared empathy. No shared sigh of relief. We knew it wasn’t real. We knew some of it was utterly contrived, but we watched it together and had a point of contact and communication. Sometimes a point of departure for discussions of ethics or civics or the importance of family, empathy, charity and unity. TV in my day gave us a feeling of cohesiveness, even if it was false.
We saw Cronkite tell us about JFK being shot, MLK being shot. Together. We could see our parents’ reactions, they could see ours and help explain the unexplainable, the dangerousness of the world and issues of life and death could be put in perspective without undue anxiety. I wonder how many kids are watching bullets flying in slow motion across a screen with no one to tell them that that’s not real and that the dead guy will get up and walk to his trailer when the director yells cut. I wonder how the kids who see real bullets fly in their neighborhoods react to that same image. When I talk to young parents it sometimes seems that they have no idea what their kids are watching until the child uses a catch phrase from a show or asks for an action figure.
I am not one of those folks who thinks that television, movies and video games are the source of all evil, but as a part of the first generation to grow up with a television in just about every house, I do know how it can shape a person’s world view. My political views can be traced in a straight line back to news coverage of Selma, Dallas, Memphis, Vietnam, Watergate. I do worry sometimes that all this isolated and constant “on demand” viewing with no other input because no one is paying attention could be a problem down the road for some kids.
I think I worry because even though we watched mostly as a family, I know people who did the same thing my family did and they grew up wondering why their family bore no resemblance to the Cleavers or the Father Knows Best brood. They felt like they somehow missed out on the perfect family because theirs had so many flaws, finally realizing that they were nostalgic for something that never was, never existed in reality. June was secretly eating valium so she could vacuum in high heels, Ward was stopping by the No Tell Motel after work having some chick named Trixie tie him up and call him a naughty boy, Wally was smacking the Beav around when the cameras weren’t rolling and Eddie Haskell became a trader for Goldman Sachs and wound up in jail, leaving two ex-wives and five kids destitute and hating him.
I think my concern lies not only in the isolation of the viewers, age notwithstanding, but also with the sheer volume of input that will have to be filed somewhere in their mental file cabinets. I am really concerned with reality shows seeming to glorify our baser instincts and inculcating a get-them-before-they-get-me mentality. (I’ve only ever seen 15 minutes of Survivor but know what being voted off the island means.) Hundreds of thousands of images and commercials and news teasers, staggering numbers of hours of them from childhood to adulthood that they’ll have to sort out :::::::::::::Kim Jong Un Launching a Nuke. News at 11:::::::SHE likes a guy with a little hair on his chest but not his back and SHE likes a guy completely hairless! With Androgy-shave you can:::::::::::This steering wheel is like holding a sunset in your hand, the upholstery is as adventurous as ::::::::::::::Domino’s is now offering:::::::::Your skin a mess? Try:::::::::::Need to lose weight? Try:::::::Want longer eyelashes? Try::::::Click:::::Oh my god, they killed Kenny!::::click::::Elliot, Elliot he’s on the roof! Call for backup!::::click::::I’m going to align myself with Melissa bacause Johnny is so full of <bleep> and if I’m going to win this thing::::click::::Two men are dead after gunshots in::::click::::This kid is destined for the pros. No doubt about it he::::click::::
Sometimes I really miss Test Patterns. But wait! Earth vs The Spider is on YouTube RIGHT NOW!