Armagideon Time

I turned out TV

May 5th, 2017


I’ve covered this subject in previous posts, but stuff sinks quickly in this format and I feel obligated to live up to Mike’s high praise for me.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the conflict between public perception and historical reality. It has been a recurring theme in my armchair scholarship, but it’s not alone in that regard. I also have a complementary interest in the patterns of cultural transmission between generations. Not only do they play a huge role in transforming actual experience into received wisdom — through the memetic equivalents of packet loss and signal distortion — but understanding them has been invaluable in parsing my own lived experiences that those of my peers.

I’m a Gen X’er. I’ve never cared for the term but it’s the one that stuck, so I’m using it here. That generation is popularly caricatured as a bunch of media-damaged reference-droppers, which addresses the symptoms of something a bit bigger and deeper — that folks in my age group came of age during the terminal phase of a six-decade popcult pile-up. The cultural sphere we inhabited was shaped by the detritus and outsized influences of the generations which came before us, filtered though a fairly restricted media landscape.

Some of this was propagated by Boomer parents and Greatest Generation grandparents, who exposed us (intentionally or incidentally) to bits of their own popcult flotsam as we were growing up. The grandfather who quoted Spike Jones lyrics or the mother who made baffling references to Beanie and Cecil.

The biggest influence, however, was the Great God UHF.

In those days, most TV media markets consisted of local affiliates of the three national networks, PBS, and a couple of independent UHF stations. These mercenary wildcatters of the airwaves didn’t have access to current top tier content, but they did have far more latitude in terms of programming. They were dumping grounds for all sorts of cheap time-fillers — old movies, lesser game shows, syndicated reruns of network fare and cheap-jack first run oddities. They also held a lock on the kiddie demographic outside PBS’s edu-content, dedicating the early morning and afternoon blocks with the ghosts of network Saturday morning cartoons past and various studio shorts dating back to the early 1930s.

These were often bracketed with dated sitcoms with kid-appeal — The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, The Monkees, and so forth — which would switch over to gimmick-heavy game shows, followed by more contemporary sitcom repeats (aka “the birth of Andrew’s love of WKRP and Barney Miller”) followed by a procession of films which grew odder as the evening progressed into early morning. Weekends meant Three Stooges shorts and Abbot & Costello flicks, with afternoon movie matinees that might include some regional form of Channel 56′s “Creature Double Feature.”

Of all the bits of childhood ephemera I regret losing from those days, the one I truly wish I held on to was a handwritten flowchart my mother made to outline my weekday morning viewing options. The idea was to help me learn how to tell time, but the real purpose was to lock me into a regular routine with the electronic babysitter.

Cable TV service and VCRs were rare luxuries. All TV was by appointment and choice of fare tended to be a matter of degrees, such as choosing Bewitched over I Dream of Jeannie.

It was monoculture in a sense, but one decided by default. The general homogeneity of the programming embedded a popcult lingua franca into any youngster who spent any protracted period of time basking in the glow of cathode rays…and there were a lot of us.

That symbolic lexicon created by that catch-as-cheaply-as-catch-can approach to programming spanned decades, giving rise to a pantheon of recognizable players. You’d hear Paul Lynde’s voice in an old Hanna Barbera cartoon, then see him show up on Bewitched, then lob zingers from the center square, then appear again in an Sunday afternoon airing of Beach Blanket Bingo. I knew of Vincent Price from the Brady Bunch and toy commercials long before I ever watched one of his movies in full, and my initial exposure to Edward G. Robinson — and countless swing/pop standard/classical pieces from ancient Warner Brothers cartoons.

This is how Maura’s F-Troop obsession led to becoming Larry Storch’s pen pal for a while, and why references to Chuck Cunningham or Jan Brady’s pee-pee dance could be considered comedy gold back during my undergrad days. (One of the earliest comedy skits I wrote was “What if Paul Lynde played Jack in The Shining?” It was a big hit with my collaborators but too much work to actually produce.)

And that’s not even getting into the successive, overlapping waves of decade-themed retro revivals which my generation experienced outside the TV realm.

UHF channels’ role as cultural palimpsest began to fade by the mid-1980s, due to industry deregulation and consolidation. Toy-based cartoons were a more compelling draw than public domain Popeye shorts, and infomercials could rake in more revenue than any ad buys for a 2AM airing of a heavily edited Blind Dead sequel. Media corps gobbled up UHF stations to create their own networks with their own original programming. Cable and VCRs became more ubiquitous, jumpstarting the “narrowcasting” model which reigns today. Tight channels of distribution fanned out into wide delta of choices for viewers.

My cousin, born in 1990, didn’t have to sit through long blocks of broadcast-offs. She just watched a VHS tape of The Lion King over and over again. My ten year old niece simply streams her favorite shows to her iPad. Even among my peers, the arcs of retro-viewing tend to mirror what gets put up on one of the various streaming services or was recently released to Blu Ray.

I’m not knocking the paradigm shift, because it’s fucking stupid to think someone should be forced to sit though Hazel reruns because six year old Andrew was too lazy to get off his ass and play in the yard. At the same time, I do miss the passing of a touchstone which exposed my generation to a wider historical spectrum of pop culture…which we then used to make lazy jokes about Greg Brady’s wardrobe.

The Lost Generation had the World War and Jazz Age as their formative environments. We had Carol Channing guesting on The Love Boat between K-Tel commercials blasting snippets of old rock songs.

Related posts:

  1. Journey into nightmare
  2. Clearing the airwaves
  3. Not so long ago

6 Responses to “I turned out TV”

  1. Tony Goins

    Ditto – I was surprised to learn how much of my childhood dated from the 1960s (Scooby-Doo) and 1940s (Looney Tunes.) My kids have no exposure to Bugs Bunny except when I sat them down and made them watch it.

    But then, they’re watching Transformers, Star Wars and My Little Pony, so maybe the lingua franca is just moving forward a few decades.

  2. Sallyp

    Well crap, now I feel older than ever. I remember watching half this stuff when it was NEW!

    I still miss the original Jonny Quest cartoons though.

  3. ArghSims

    me too, Sally. But Andrew’s insights are worth the feelings of decrepitude.

    The later-day Jonny Quests were were sad. Have you checked Jeff Parker’s cool Future Quest stuff?

  4. SJB

    Get me into a time machine to 1977 stat!

  5. Matthew JOhnson

    My strongest sense of this period — and I think you and I are almost exactly the same age — is the feeling that none of the media we got was made for us, because we were at the very lowest ebb of the baby bust. Everything was second-hand: TV reruns from the 60s, Disney and Warner Brother cartoons from the 40s, etc. I think that’s part of why Star Wars hit as hard as it did: here was something that was _ours_.

    A few years later, of course, the echo-Boom combined with Reagan’s deregulation of the airwaves led to the creation of all the tie-in crap that is being endlessly rebooted today…

  6. Chris Wuchte

    I think about this a lot actually. Not sure when I realized that current generations weren’t being equipped with the knowledge of what happens in every episode of Gilligan’s Island. But a few years back I began to notice co-workers, usually older than me, referencing something from the Baby Boomer era, something I understood even though I hadn’t lived through it, but everyone younger than me seemed utterly confused.

    It was strange, because for most of my childhood I thought the reason why these things were so ubiquitous was because they were somehow important. The local TV stations wer playing Abbott & Costello and Ma & Pa Kettle movies every weekend because they were classics, and that it was important that we somehow know that Beverly Hillbillies/Green Aces/Petticoat Junction take place in a shared universe. When I realized that I was only being force fed this stuff because it was cheap, I felt a little let down.

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