The Cultural Significance of Television, the electronic babysitter

Essay begun 11/11/01 Finished 06/21/05

1950’s

I was born in 1953. As far back as I can remember, there has always been a television in our household. It always sits in the living room, up against the wall, facing the seating area. The first one I remember had double doors hiding the screen, so that it looked more like a piece of “furniture” than an electronic portal beaming images Into our consciousness.

The case was made of oak, and it was a heavy piece of furniture, even though the screen itself, and the accompanying cathode ray tube was miniscule by today’s standards. The measurement of the screen area was merely 15” in diameter, and, in the fifties, television images were in black and white. They were also hard to tune in, and in Los Angeles in those pre information age times, there were only 13 channels listed on the dial. Six of them had content.

Cultural History tells us that the fifties were a time, post war, of upward mobility and expansion. In my youth I remember our household was not very “upper middle class”. I always thought of our home as more “traditional” with furnishings reflecting the forties rather than the fifties. The collective memory says everyone watched television constantly, but in our household, and in most others in the fifties, the new medium of television was only becoming a replacement for ingrained family pursuits. We ate dinner around the dinner table. My siblings and I played make believe together and alone. On Saturday night our family gathered around the kitchen table and sang hymns. On Sunday nights, my siblings and I would “perform” for our parents, either song, dance, or drama. I rather think that most families in the early days did not yet fashion their lives around the “idiot box” as it was soon to be called. There were popular programs which nearly everybody tuned in to see, and schedules were created around these isolated programs, but on the whole, the programming was scarce,

My earliest memories are of cartoons, demolition derbies, Walter Cronkite, and roller derby. The cartoons were old theatrical shorts, like Betty Boop, Popeye, Mickey Mouse, and Looney Tunes. On Sundays at 6pm, “Disneyland” came on, what is now known as “The Wonderful World of Disney.” On Saturday mornings I watched the “westerns” starring Roy Rogers and The Lone Ranger. I remember “The Twentieth Century”, an early documentary style program with the aforementioned Cronkite. There were serials like Flash Gordon. There were variety shows hosted by Big Band Leaders. As a kid, in L.A. there were lots of kid shows, like Sheriff John and Romper Room, Engineer Bill, and Chucko the clown. My parents watched “The Twilight Zone” and “Perry Mason”. My cultural recollections are pretty much based on the years from 1957 to 1959, as the later fifties is when I started becoming “aware” of the role of culture in the society. I didn’t start collecting TV Guides till 1967, but can remember seeing the first “Fall Preview Issue” in 1963, while in fifth grade.

Most of 1963 on I remember very well, but in the fifties, television hadn’t really become a “hearth” in our family.

The most interesting thing to note, however, is that I do always remember a television in the house, as will most of my generation.

It was always a part of my life. The heavy oak piece of furniture with doors to hide the screen was the first piece of equipment in the American household which began the copy/paste sensibility which has permeated American Popular Culture for most of my life. When an icon broke out in the early days of television, it would break out nationally, and cement itself in the popular culture. Davy Crockett, Captain Kangaroo, Edward R. Murrow, Rod Serling. A lot of the cultural iconography of our present generation first became known in the fifties, with the advent of television. Radio was the populist medium which television replaced, and there are lots of iconographic memories in the cultural consciousness regarding radio. The radio in our house in the fifties was as big as the television, and only encompassed an AM dial, which was almost a foot in diameter. But by the late fifties, the popular radio shows had already become television shows. The radio played mainly music, like today.

By the dawn of the 1960’s our viewing habits changed. The box demanded more attention as it became the cultural conduit of our lives.

1960’s

The year 1963 is when I tell myself I became “culturally aware”. To this day, I remember leafing through the Fall Preview issue of the TV guide in September 1962 with my mother, brother and sister, picking the programs we would choose from the program grid, so there wouldn’t be any “sibling rivalry” when the night came for the program to air. As happens today, the networks (there were three of them, and they were collectively known as the “big three” in those days) would advertise the new shows, and based on promotional shows, ads, and entertainment news, although this was before the L.A. Times had a “Calendar” section, we would choose what we would watch on any given night.

In the sixties, popular culture exploded. Although rock and roll was nearly a decade old, it had stagnated until the Beatles and other English bands reinvigorated America’s knowledge of it’s own rhythm and blues background. On television, everything seemed new. And in the early sixties, I can remember the network shows touting the latest technology, COLOR. The sets in the sixties were sleeker, and more like electronics gear than furniture. In the sixties, we graduated from the set with doors to a 19” console with a metal cabinet, and a second dial for the UHF band, which added five or six “educational channels” to the lineup.

My mother was crazy for mysteries, and although I can’t now remember the names of the programs, she watched four or five “anthology series” where each week another independent “playlet” would be presented. Dad liked sports and the big band shows hosted by the Dorsey Brothers and Nat King Cole. My brother and I enjoyed the movies, and would watch Million Dollar Movie and Six O’Clock Movie, and the Saturday night horror showcases like Chiller and Strange Tales of Science Fiction. We were really into “monsters” and paranormal type shows as well like “One Step Beyond”, and the aforementioned “Twilight Zone.” We particularly enjoyed watching “The Outer Limits”, a horror/science fiction anthology series which premiered in 1963.

With each year, as I became more aware, I began to notice the impact of the tube on life, and vice versa. I began collecting the TV Guide Fall Preview Issues, which listed the new program schedules each fall.

We got our first Color television in the late sixties, and the experience of watching television somehow changed. Instead of just “images” I began noticing the differences in film stock and tape, and how early color television shows all looked “hyperrealistic”. TV became more real than real.

Still, I wouldn’t say life for my family “revolved” around the television. On Saturdays when Dad would watch sporting events, if my brother and I weren’t watching along with him, we were out playing in the yard. Sundays were reserved for Sunday School and Church, and afternoons on school nights were reserved for homework. The tv was rarely on before 6pm, and then was pretty much on till bedtime.

Certain shows caused our bedtime schedule to become flexible, an instance where the cultural influence of television would alter people;’s time schedules. When “Outer Limits:” or “Star Trek” aired at 10pm, my parents would begrudgingly allow us to stay up “way past our bedtime” which was usually at 8pm, so we could watch certain episodes. But mainly, I remember we weren’t allowed to stay up, but stay up we did, in our bedroom with the door closed, listening to the sounds of the restricted programs emanating from the living room.

We would take lots of trips to the kitchen for “a glass of water”, and then would hardly get any sleep because we had to go the bathroom several times during the night.

During the sixties, the VietNam war was televised nightly on the six o’clock news. As I grew up, I grew to question and to hate this conflict played out in front of America on the nightly news. In the late sixties, as I started high school, the programming was a mite more subversive, with the Smothers Brothers and Laugh-In broadcasting dope jokes and antiwar sensibilities. The “counterculture” was very present on the television screen in our household, but it wasn’t present in our hyper-controlled home atmosphere. My parents took great pains to “rule the roost” and very little “uncensored” material found it’s way past their ever present and watchful gaze. But I would probably credit the news images and programs of the sixties with “educating” me to the world situation, and planting the seeds of dissent which I and many other young people would practice.

By the seventies, however, the ever present “idiot box” took a back seat to my real life, where it has thankfully been positioned ever since.

1970’s

I graduated form high school in 1971, and by then the social whirl of school activities largely pushed television watching way back on the burner. I was involved with the student dramatic program, and was the editor of our high school newspaper. AT sixteen, I received my first automobile, and took it to the football games. I usually stayed an hour or two after school in the library studying, or merely reading books for enjoyment. There were some programs on tv which I wouldn’t miss. “The Waltons”, the Movie of the Week and the movie nights, Laugh-In. The news. But literature interested me more. Life interested me more. And in college, as a literature major, where I had to successfully read about four books a week for classes, I found the experience of television to be an intrusion. There were simply more important things to do.

I attended college through 1974, and when my father suddenly died, I found myself renting an apartment and buying my own television. It was a 19" color motel TV that had been refurbished. When spending evenings alone, I would watch certain television shows. Saturday Night Live, Baretta, Police Story. I was a fan of Joseph Wambaugh and enjoyed the Police Story programs very much. Most of the time I was listening to music, however. I bought a number of record albums every weekend after work, and enjoyed playing lots of music. I set up a bar in my apartment, and frequently entertained.

I remember the hoopla concerning the first miniseries, "Roots" in 1976. A lot of people at work and in our apartment building watched each episode religiously. I told people I didn't want the television to rule my life, and refused to watch it like everybody else. I began to read about technology that would allow for people to play movies on discs in their homes. I had minored in film history in college, and loved the idea of owning and viewing my own movies whenever I wanted. The 70s were a decade of bad TV, so I didn't miss anything by not watching the box. Hour shows like "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "Starskey and Hutch", and half hour comedies like "LaVerne and Shirley" and "Three's Company" were pretty lame, and added nothing of merit to the cultural landscape.

1980’s

My first CED player was purchased at one of those "old downtown" electronics stores, where the salesmen still dressed in suits and ties, and got commission, in 1981. It was a sleek "machine" that proved very easy to play. The movies came in "sleeves" or "caddys" which were inserted into the player, then a lever was tripped to drop the "needle" onto the "record". The actual movie was played like a record album, and of course this meant that sometimes they "skipped", but the clarity was much better than tape. The televsion set became a "video monitor" and it has really never been anything else since.

I had the videodisc player for a couple of years before I got tape. Then I ended up buying four players, two VHS and two Beta, so that I could "edit" from one machine to the other, and "make my own tapes". I couldn't even say for sure which television programs were popular in the 80s. "Hill Street Blues", "Cagney and Lacey", "Remington Steele", "Dallas", "Thirtysomething". The cultural landscape was changed forever by MTV, which started broadcasting in the 80s. My then roommate watched a lot of MTV, so I was exposed, but personally I didn't watch much. In the mid eighties, CBS introduced the new "Twilight Zone" anthology series, and NBC came out with Stephen Spielberg's "Amazing Stories". I taped these shows as they aired, sometimes watching, and sometimes waiting till later. From the dawn of "home video", I began to "program" my own viewing schedule. I rented videos from the neighborhood "mom and pop" video store. I bought videodiscs and records every weekend. My roommates at the time were able to receive a crash course in film history, as I began my video collection.

The "television" as a cultual influence itself lasted only about 20 years. By the 80s, cable television had made major inroads into the American neighborhood, and more choice became available even to people who didn't collect video or tape selectively. By the end of the 80s I had two rather large bookcases filled with videotape of both kinds, and I had over 130 videodiscs. CED had a short lifespan, and when RCA killed the format, I began collecting laserdiscs, interested mainly in the "letterboxed" widescreen movies which banded the top and the bottom of a square television screen to replicate the complete width of the image. My original 19" television had been replaced by a 25" monitor in the late 70s, and by the late 80s I had one of the first bigscreen tube televisions, a massive 32" tube that weighed a ton. Widescreen movies almost looked like movies, if I squinted hard enough and made believe I was in the very back row of a movie theater. I lived with a friend in the late 80s who had a front projection television, and I knew that someday I would graduate to a much larger size, but wanted to wait till the technology existed for the best picture. I collected many video magazines during this time, and bought my first videocamera in the 80s. Not everyone was a technical junkie like me. People still watched television, but there were lots more choices available than ever before. Another "network" was even born, "Fox", which produced "The Simpsons", still one of my favorite television shows of all time. For a while, my friends and I would create "TV nights" where we would all gather around the bigscreen for a specific program, like "Dinosaurs" or the aforementioned "Simpsons". Since my roommate was into sports, I watched a lot of sports when I would hang around, but preferred to watch tape or disc movies when I was in my own room with it's television.

1990’s

When I moved in with my girlfriend in 1992 I found myself surrounded by an "instant family", and became quite aware of "what was on TV" by watching my girlfriend's children quarrel over the remote. Charlie was 12, and preferred cartoons. Laura liked the "talk shows" like Jerry Springer and Montel Williams. My 32" "movie display device" became the television, and was privy to the 100 or so channels that the cable brought into our household. Some evenings, after everyone was in bed, I would go into the living room and order a pay per view movie and tape it, and I still bought a few laserdiscs, but I was feeding more than myself, and my finances were directed in other ways. When I broke up with my girlfriend and moved out and into the place I now share with my present roommate, I purchased my first projection television, a 60" monster that still displays a pretty nice picture. When DirecTV became available, I subscribed immediately. During most of my life, I followed the home theater trade, and I bought my first digital receiver and switcher with a matching DVD player at one of the Home Theater magazine trade shows. I started addending the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in 1999. My movie collection began to turn into DVDs, the first "populist" home movie format, with by far the best looking picture. During the 90s I got my first digital videocamera, and was amazed at the small size of the tape, and the crystal clear images.

The late 90s also saw the advent of the computer as another "video display device". As computing power got better, the quality of the movies being streamed over the internet started to resemble DVDs. At first the images were small and lacked clarity. The computer and the television were made for each other, and by the end of the decade, the buzzword was "convergence".

The 21st Century

The state of convergence hasn’t fully arrived, but the copy/paste feel of pop culture is enhanced by digital imaging and connectivity. The internet is just the latest conduit through which we "watch" television. Websites show movies. You can catch movie trailers, catch up with television programs, watch news and features, all on demand on the computer. Of course there is still "television." There are still television "networks" and there is still "cable", which has recently gone digital, Add to that digital "satellite", and now, digital television over the air. The computer and the television are getting married after all, even if it is a stormy relationship at times. After many delays, digital television, and HDTV, should are starting to become commonplace. An HDTV set, which I bought two years ago, has a "widescreen" display area, so there are no more "letterbox bands" on widescreen movies. Programming is slow in coming, but more and more widescreen high definition programming is becoming available.

The age of "entertainment on demand" is a reality. Almost. The biggest cultural advancement during the 21st century so far is the advent of the PVR or personal video recorder, which is in actuality a computer hard drive that records media.

Tomorrow

The television will eventually morph into "virtual reality" where "viewers" become "participants" and are immersed in their entertainment. Today's gamers are taking the first babysteps into the eventual virtual reality world. It's sure to be as true tomorrow as today, and since the 50s, that there will be a television set of some sort placed prominently in the living area of our homes, with a remote control ready to give us instant entertainment, on demand. Perhaps even a DVD of an old 50s television show like "I Love Lucy". As technology improves, our conduit to the past archives of our television history will become more available, and this total immersion in our past will help to mold our future. Someday, we will all have our own television stations on the internet, and we will control the programming. Phenomena like blogging proves that there are thousands of creative people whose creativity soars when given an audience. And the more creative people are getting popular without even trying. Colonies of artists are springing up everywhere on the internet, and these artists are you and me.

In the "future" we might even be programming our "experiences" or our "entertainment" directly into our brains. We might be able to record our dreams. The television has almost become an extension of the human psyche, showing and recording at the same time. The cultural significance of the television set cannot be denied. It crept into our homes as furniture, and decided to make itself at home.

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