This week, I pay tribute to the television of my formative years.
Notice I didn’t say the television programming of my formative years.
Nah — with a few shining exceptions, the shows I watched as a kid in the very late ’70s and first half of the ’80s pretty much sucked.
No, I said the television of my formative years. A big square Zenith, or maybe a Magnavox, with fake plastic woodgrain sides.
It was whompin’ heavy, a backache in a box.
Of course it had two knobs — one for VHF, one for UHF — plus a variety of marginally effective slides and switches you could tinker with on Sunday afternoons when the Cleveland Browns showed up wearing pink.
(You also had the option of chastening the machine with a hearty open-handed slap — a punishment I still sometimes deliver, just out of habit, to the skinny computer monitor in my work cubicle.)
It emitted a gentle burning smell if you left it on for hours, and shriveled its image to a ghost-dot after you finally turned it off.
A shame that most of the programming that aired in my house was nowhere near as sturdy or purposeful as the set that showed it.
(And yes, those are floppy disks in the foreground of that pic. Our TV doubled as a colour monitor for our Apple II+ computer as a special treat during the Christmas holidays.)
No matter how stout and rugged an old-school TV might have seemed, its function was often sharply limited without one external piece of gear — an aerial.
If you could get the built-in rabbit ears to do the job — perhaps by swathing them in tinfoil — good for you. More frequently, you needed a big wire contraption that looked like a jumble of coathangers, placed somewhere at height, to help you pull in the late night movie.
Back then, the TV aerial was a unifying technology. Most everybody had one, and not just in America. Check out the opening slide from “Der Schwarze Kanal” (“The Black Channel”), the long-running East German propaganda TV show. The jumble of antennas supporting the German eagle could just as easily have been found in Denver or Louisville instead of Dresden or Leipzig.
We in the States had access to better-built cars and cameras than our peers behind the Iron Curtain … but when it came to pulling in TV, we were all Brüder der Antenne. (That’s the Babelfish translation of “brothers of the antenna,” anyway.)
In my childhood home in Rochester, New York, we kept our antenna in the rafters of the garage — high enough to be useful, but safe from wintry weather. Some of you have heard my stories of my brother and I padding quietly into the garage and using a broomstick to nudge the antenna in the general direction of Buffalo, adding an exotic new channel or two to our late-night lineup.
In my grandfather’s home in Stamford, Connecticut, the aerial lived in his attic.
And 39 years ago this week, my dad was up there wiring it into service.
(Very thoughtful of my grandfather to give my dad, Rod, credit on his calendar. Did he think someone was going to see his little note and get the wrong idea?)
Interestingly, a new generation of TV technology was already in place on that rainy day, a figurative stone’s throw from my grandparents’ house.
A start-up called Sterling Manhattan Cable had been offering primitive cable service to a small chunk of Manhattan since the mid-1960s. In the fall of 1972, Time Life Inc. (my grandfather’s longtime employer) would buy a majority share of Sterling Manhattan Cable and begin rolling the service out to other markets under the now-familiar name of Home Box Office.
That wasn’t an option to my grandfather then, though. And even if it had been, he probably wouldn’t have bought in. I don’t believe he ever had cable TV.
I consider it a given that my grandparents and my folks gathered around the TV that night. Having put the new antenna in place, they surely felt some compulsion to put it to work.
Unfortunately, the New York Times’ online archives for July 1972 don’t seem to have detailed listings, so I can’t be certain of what programs were available in the New York ‘burbs.
Archived newspapers from elsewhere in the country indicate that CBS aired an hour-long tribute that night to lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. I can imagine my grandparents and parents maybe tuning into that. (Can you imagine such a thing getting network airtime nowadays? Today, they might have a reality show with waiters and baristas from across America singing Rodgers and Hammerstein material, I suppose.)
Also on offer from the major networks were a Tigers-Orioles baseball game (Earl Weaver’s Orioles whipped up on Detroit, 15-3); an episode of “Here’s Lucy;” and a movie called “Rapture,” which I’m guessing is this Dean Stockwell-Mervyn Douglas film from 1965.
The Interwebs also tell me that George Carlin guest-hosted for Johnny Carson that night. But I doubt anybody at 1107 Hope Street stayed up that late, as Carlin would have been a little too shaggy to appeal to anyone in the house.
(Only about three weeks after the show aired, Carlin was arrested at an obscenity-riddled Milwaukee concert that included his “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” monologue.)
And besides, I bet my dad wanted to get to bed early. Wrestling with television equipment sure took a lot out of you, way back when.