Sunday I wrote about the new indoor TV antenna I’ve started using (“Cutting the Cord, Step One”). That has caused me to think about the place television has had in my life.
My first clear memory of seeing something on TV was Sunday, November 24, 1963. My (paternal) grandmother and aunt had joined us for dinner that afternoon. Our television, a small black and white model with rabbit ears on a wheeled cart, had been positioned near the end of the dining room table. That was unusual, but President Kennedy had been shot and killed two days earlier and the television brought the latest news so it was appropriate to have it on during dinner. I don’t remember Kennedy’s death or the TV coverage of it although I’m sure I watched it. What I do remember quite vividly was while sitting around the table on that Sunday afternoon, my aunt screaming, “My God, they shot him!” Having just turned 5 years old, I assumed she meant they had shot the new President, because that’s what seemed to happen to Presidents – they got shot. But no, it was Lee Harvey Oswald who had been shot and killed. Someone explained that he was the one who had shot Kennedy, now someone else shot him. I’m quite sure that in the days that followed I watched the funeral of President Kennedy, particularly the carriage (caison?) that carried his flag draped casket while escorted by uniformed service members. But my memory of that may have been refreshed by seeing pictures or video long afterwards. The Oswald shooting, because of the in person pandemonium in our dining room, was embedded in my memory without the need for refreshment.
My (maternal) grandparents, who lived upstairs from us, were the first in the family to own a colored TV. The annual broadcast of the Wizard of Oz was a big deal. I and all my cousins would gather around that TV to catch the during-the-movie transformation from black and white to color. We’d all seen color movies before at the theater, but to have color on the TV in your living room was impressive.
I assume I watched the full menu of kids cartoons back then. Bugs Bunny stands out. But I also remember locally produced morning programs like Romper Room, Captain Kangaroo, Major Mudd, and Boom Town. I especially liked Major Mudd because he showed at least one Three Stooges short film during his hour-long program. I’d have a Poptart with a glass of milk on a tray table in front of the TV before heading for school. (Back then, there was only one TV per household and it was usually in the living room; the idea of a TV in the kitchen was still in the future).
On sick days or snow days, I would watch game shows like The Price is Right and Let’s Make a Deal. Although I kept quiet about it, I was intrigued by cooking shows. Back then it was Julia Child’s The French Chef and Graham Kerr’s The Galloping Gourmet. I thought both were entertaining and informative. My lifelong ease in the kitchen, a useful skill, was nurtured by those programs.
We almost always had home cooked meals, but a special treat was a TV dinner. For anyone unfamiliar with it, a TV dinner was a foil tray with several extruded compartments, each with a different element of a “complete” dinner. My memory was of one large compartment for the main entree (my favorite was a toss up between roast turkey or fried chicken), then there were three smaller compartments. They held mashed potatoes, a vegetable, and dessert which was something like peach cobbler. This was sold as a solid frozen block in a colorful box with a photo of the reheated meal. To serve, you’d remove it from the freezer, take the tray out of the box, peel off the top foil cover, preheat the oven and place the tray with the frozen-solid food into the oven for a set amount of time, then you ate it right from the tray. What could be more convenient? My dominant flavor memory is salt so it was probably packed with that and other stuff that tasted addictively good but wasn’t very good for you.
After dinner and homework, I preferred military programs like Combat, the Rat Patrol and comedies like Hogan’s Heroes, McHale’s Navy and F-Troop. Westerns never really interested me except for the Wild, Wild West, for some reason.
After school sometimes there was a vampire show called Dark Shadows. I always felt a little weird about watching that but I understand vampire shows are common in popular culture now so I suppose the same was true fifty years ago only no one talked about it much.
Moving on into middle school and high school, All in the Family was groundbreaking. That began when I was in seventh grade. The next day in school anyone who had watched it would talk about all the outrageous things that had been said during the previous night’s episode.
I don’t remember much about TV while I was in high school; I’m sure I was in front of the set often, I just don’t recall much about it which might be a comment on the quality of the programming in that era.
While in college, Saturday Night Live was still in its prime so freshman year especially (1976-77) we often ended up in front of someone’s dorm room TV at 11:30 on Saturday nights to watch that “live” since back then, there was no other option. There was also an annex to the campus dining room that served coffee and donuts on weekday mornings after the main cafeteria finished serving breakfast. For some reason I remember The Phil Donohue show was always on. I only saw short snippets of the program but it was enough to know that guests were talking about stuff that I hadn’t previously heard talked about on TV. I wonder if Donahue was the pioneer of that kind of inane, confessional television that remains with us today.
After graduating from college, I went in the Army and spent three years in Germany. There wasn’t a lot of time for TV but AFN (Armed Forces Network) had a single TV channel that broadcast American programming. Friday night was a strong lineup: MASH was the highlight but it was bookended by One Day at a Time and Hill Street Blues. AFN got the programs a year behind their American TV debut but with no other options (in English, at least) we enjoyed getting a taste of American culture.
Back in the US, I’m embarrassed to admit that my “must watch” program for the week was the McLaughlin Group on Friday nights. The host, John McLaughlin, convened four semi-regular commentators to discuss the week’s political developments. I use the word “embarrassed” to describe my watching the show because I soon realized they were a bunch of blowhards pursuing their own agendas which included getting viewers riled up about whatever angle the pundit was pushing to win favor with someone in power. Just like Phil Donahue ushered in a type of programming that has demeaned our society, the McLaughlin group was the vanguard of TV commentators that have demeaned our politics (and worse).
During the 1990s, one of my favorite programs was Homicide: Life on the Street. It was a crime show set in Baltimore. I recently re-watched an episode of the show and the thing that struck me most was the absence of cell phones. Cell phones are ubiquitous in our lives now and they are a windfall for TV script writers. Countless times during that recently watched episode of Homicide, I found myself thinking, why doesn’t he use his cell phone? If you think being in constant contact is a curse, watch a TV drama from the early 1990s to be reminded of how cellular technology benefits us in many ways.
I would call the early 2000s my Netflix era. I watched mostly episodic programs on it rather than movies so I include that in my TV diary. And lest anyone forget, this was the Netflix of a physical DVD arriving in your mailbox in a red envelope, not the streaming service we have today. At that point in our lives, a 60 minute episode watched after dinner was just right. The shows I remember best are Deadwood and The Wire but there were many others.
Which brings us to now. My TV watching falls into a couple of buckets. I still comprehend the weather forecast best when it is explained to me by a human being in front of a map, so I try to catch the TV forecast each morning, usually on Channel 7. Unless there’s some breaking news like Russia invading a neighboring country or the defeated president trying to violently overthrow the government, I don’t bother with TV news. There is football, but I’ll save that to my upcoming Memories of Sports on TV story. But with several hundred cable channels and several streaming services, the amount of content I have available to me is immense. I find it intellectually paralyzing which may be why I’m now reading more books than ever.