As a reporter, I cover a number of beats, including those related to advances in TV production and the technology that brings TV to our homes. In my lifetime I’ve seen some of the most significant advances in television, and unlike many who take it forgranted, I have a very deep respect for TV.
My actual birthday is in January, but Aug. 21 is a date that is much more momentous to me. Back in 1980, it was the date on which my family was first connected to cable TV.
This might seem like a silly date to note in one’s life, but how important TV has been to me can’t be overstated. I was born only a few years before Philo Farnsworth passed away, but as a child I wrote a paper on him in grade school, crediting Farnsworth as my favorite “inventor” of the 20th century.
My teacher, who saw TV as “the idiot box” was far from impressed — Farnsworth was no Alexander Graham Bell or Thomas Edison in her mind — but even then I could have argued that Farnsworth saw the potential of television, and unlike many otherinventors, including the two aforementioned ones, he wasn’t someone whotook credit for others’ works. In fact, unless you study broadcasting in school, as I did in college, you might not even know the name Farnsworth at all.
Yet he helped usher in a form of communication that connected the world like never before.
Cable TV took my devotion to the box to a whole new level. It fostered an appreciation of film, one that few children possess beyond the usual Disney films. The day the cable guy came was rainy and cool, so my mother had no problem with me soaking in TV rather than playing outside and literally getting soaked.
The first movie I watched that day was on Cinemax, which actually had launched as the first HBO spinoff channel, and it largely showed classic and B-movies in the afternoon. That day I saw the 1955 Frank Sinatra drama The Man with the Golden Arm — not exactly a kid-friendly film, but maybe the fact that it was presented without commercials just stuck with me.
The other thing I noticed — even before my parents or other adultsdid — was that the picture quality was consistent across everychannel, even on a rainy summer day. Today most of us take this forgranted, but anyone who was a child in the 1970s or 1980s, or who wentwithout cable in the pre-HD era, remembers the need for rabbit earantennas and plenty of aluminum foil! Cable delivered a greatlooking picture on every channel.
The next thing that instantly clicked was that you could watch a movieagain the next time it aired (provided your parents subscribed to HBO,Cinemax or Showtime — the channels available at the time). Today manyparents no doubt endure endless loops of children’s movies, but beforecable kids often begged their parents to take them tothe movies to see a favorite again and again. That changed first with cable and soonafter came the VCR. Later still, one could watch favorites on DVDs.
The ability to watch movies at home is something we take for granted, but prior toHBO — which actually debuted in 1972 and now is the oldest and longestcontinuously operating pay TV service — watching movies on TV was sortof special. The major networks paid big dollars to the studios, and theSunday night movie on network TV was a big, big thing back in the1960s and 1970s.
How big? Try “Heidi Bowl.”
I’m personally too young to remember it, but Nov. 17, 1968,featured a late afternoon football showdown between the OaklandRaiders and the New York Jets, in which the former scored twotouchdowns in nine seconds — only NBC switched off the game with 65seconds on the clock to show a made-for-TV version of the children’sstory Heidi. Needless to say NFL fans watching at home weren’t happyabout it!
That is one reason sports and other live programming today will delay thestart of other regularly scheduled programming. This can present a different problem, as our modern DVRs don’t know that a game ran over,but fortunately they are often available “on demand” so no one misses out!
Go to the Tape
Pay TV channels such as HBO didn’t really change the way my family andothers gathered to watch movies, but they did change the movies wesaw. Instead of movies that featured commercial breaks and that wereedited for content, we saw uncut, uninterrupted movies.
It could be argued today that this may have exposed children (notablythose of Generation X) to violent and racy content like never before.Few parents would have taken their kids to see Hardcore with George C.Scott, or the Vietnam War film The Boys in Company C, but those were justtwo such films I was exposed to at a fairly young age because they were shown on pay TV.
A further change in the movie viewing experience came for me in 1985. After saving up a summer’s worth of lawn mowing money, I split thecost of a VHS recorder with my father. That allowed us to rent movies — but, more importantly, it allowed me to record programming. That ensured that I would never miss my shows again — unless the power went out or the channel was messed up. It was a step in the right direction for me. The need to be home to see TV was replaced by the fear that I forgot to set the darn VCR!
When I went off to college I had my VCR, which really was important for the first two years, because rooms in the dorms I lived in weren’t wired for cable TV. That was the only time in my life that I went without cable for a significant time.
College is a time of studies, extracurricular activitiesand parties — in various orders of importance, of course — and for manystudents there is less time to watch TV. However, Imajored in Broadcast and Cinematic Arts, which included the study ofthe history of television shows. Yes, I literally earned collegecredits for watching TV.
One particular favorite class of mine was on TV critique, whichhighlighted the fact that most TV critics actually are “TV reviewers,”who do little more than grade the story along with its acting anddirecting. Critique actually examines the elements of the story,including social commentary and symbolism.
For a major project, I chose to do a multilevel critique of Star Trek,and actually re-watched all 79 episodes of the original series.
In my paper, I discussed numerous ways you could critique the sci-fi show,including a Freudian analysis with Captain Kirk as the id, Dr. McCoyas the ego and Mr. Spock as the superego. I also described how theshow could be seen as an allegory of the Cold War, as well as how Kirkand company represented the mainstream culture of 1960s. Think about howmany times Kirk loses control of his ship, his crew, and even his minddue to drugs or other hostile “alien” influences.
Obviously, my love of TV — not to mention the fact that I had a StarTrek-obsessed friend who had all 79 episodes on tape, paid off. Myfellow students, many of whom had watched only a dozen shows for theirrespective reports, were less enthusiastic since I opted to present firstand set the bar impossibly high!
Embracing the Advances
After college, I remained interested in TV but actually never reallystrived to work in the industry. TV production seemed tedious to me,but I did work briefly at a music recording studio and with a companythat did live sound for concerts.
Later still, I worked with a good friend to develop a sitcom pilot,and was involved heavily in the production. A former boss was kindenough to let us shoot the project in her boutique PR firm’s Manhattanoffices over the course of a few summer weekends — and I hated every second of theexperience.
As our pilot wasn’t picked up, I opted to stick to my day job and writeabout the technology on the consumer end, as well as behind the scenes.
As a result, I’ve been an early adopter of TV technologies. I hadthe first commercial DVD player and the first six commercial releases backin April 1997 — the very week they arrived on the market. Even beforeI bought the player, I knew DVD was going to be a game-changer forpackaged content.
It was the next two devices that absolutely changed my life, however.The first was my TiVo DVR — which, as those late 1990s commercials madeclear, let you pause and rewind live TV. As with a lot of the stuffI’ve described, we take this for granted now, but 20 years ago this wasa huge game-changer. Have to take a call, go to the bathroom? Justmissed an important line? Rewind it! The DVR, along with on-demandcontent, ensures that it is difficult to “miss” a show today. Howdifferent my life as a TV-addicted child would have been had I hadsuch devices!
The second life-changing device was my first HDTV set. Today weexpect our TVs to be thin and wide, but the first HDTV my wife and Ipurchased was a massive rear projection CRT set. It weighed a couplehundred pounds and was a good 27 inches deep, but it had a 48-inchscreen and an amazing picture to display what little content was available.Of course, we had no HD channels at first, and within six months ofpurchasing it, the set burned in an image! That was a costly mistake, as itresulted in a US$700 repair bill — but HDTV just made watching everything”better.”
In 2002, I was offered the chance to do an editorial review of a42-inch plasma TV. As a matter of full disclosure, the company offeredan editorial discount and I did buy that TV, spending an unthinkablesum at the time. However, we enjoyed that set for five years until itwas passed on to my parents, who used it for several more years before upgrading. It was only last year that it was retired to the curb as the picture had started to go. That wasn’t a bad run for the set, and I must admit seeing it being hauled away was like losing an old friend.
Embracing It All
There were other great improvements along the way — including stereosound, multichannel audio — as well as some technologies that even ahardcore early adopter like me didn’t embrace, such as 3D. Even now I’mnot entirely sold on 4K because of the limits of content, but I’mwatching how HDR (High Dynamic Range) unfolds.
However, there were other advances that are still close to my heart.The first was the “Sling” technology, which allows not only timeshifting but also location shifting of shows. As a self-confessed TV junkie,I could be difficult when on vacation. I would worry, “did my showrecord,” and I’d be concerned about catching up on all of the programming I’d missed when I returned home.
Sling technology via DISH was almost as big a gamechanger for me. It allowed me to watch the content I recorded in my living room andwatch it while I traveled. It might seem silly to some, but it is sonice to be in someplace like Vienna and take in the museums, but then head back to the hotel for the evening and watch the latest episode of Homeland.
Of course I’ve embraced streaming media and currently subscribe toAmazon Prime Video and Netflix. My wife and I do binge some shows, butperhaps because of how I grew up, I still enjoy the weekly schedule,with Sunday being a day of new offerings on HBO, Showtime, Starz andEpix, as well as FX and AMC.
So, when I celebrate my very personal holiday on Aug. 21, I am notjust thinking about what cable TV brings me, even if it does providefavorites like The Walking Dead, Forged in Fire and of course Game of Thrones.
That narrow black cable allows me to watch the only sportingevent I’ve ever been serious about, the Tour de France, and because ofDVRs I can record each stage and fast-forward through the boring parts– because even a hardcore cycling fan will tell you there are hours ofboring stuff, and the networks would be quick to switch over to a newproduction of Heidi at some point!
Now I celebrate Aug. 21 not just for actual “cable TV” but because ofall of the advances of TV in general. It isn’t the idiot box that myteacher may have suggested all those years ago. TV is a valid formof entertainment, as well as a critical source of news and information. It providescountless jobs and has become a huge part of the global economy.
Then again, on a personal level, I just love TV.