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 for granted, 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 other inventors, including the two aforementioned ones, he wasn’t someone who took 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 adults did — was that the picture quality was consistent across every channel, even on a rainy summer day. Today most of us take this for granted, but anyone who was a child in the 1970s or 1980s, or who went without cable in the pre-HD era, remembers the need for rabbit ear antennas and plenty of aluminum foil! Cable delivered a great looking picture on every channel.
The next thing that instantly clicked was that you could watch a movie again the next time it aired (provided your parents subscribed to HBO, Cinemax or Showtime — the channels available at the time). Today many parents no doubt endure endless loops of children’s movies, but before cable kids often begged their parents to take them to the movies to see a favorite again and again. That changed first with cable and soon after 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 to HBO — which actually debuted in 1972 and now is the oldest and longest continuously operating pay TV service — watching movies on TV was sort of special. The major networks paid big dollars to the studios, and the Sunday night movie on network TV was a big, big thing back in the 1960s 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 Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets, in which the former scored two touchdowns in nine seconds — only NBC switched off the game with 65 seconds on the clock to show a made-for-TV version of the children’s story Heidi. Needless to say NFL fans watching at home weren’t happy about it!
That is one reason sports and other live programming today will delay the start 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 and others gathered to watch movies, but they did change the movies we saw. Instead of movies that featured commercial breaks and that were edited for content, we saw uncut, uninterrupted movies.
It could be argued today that this may have exposed children (notably those 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 just two 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 the cost 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 activities and parties — in various orders of importance, of course — and for many students there is less time to watch TV. However, I majored in Broadcast and Cinematic Arts, which included the study of the history of television shows. Yes, I literally earned college credits for watching TV.
One particular favorite class of mine was on TV critique, which highlighted the fact that most TV critics actually are “TV reviewers,” who do little more than grade the story along with its acting and directing. 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. McCoy as the ego and Mr. Spock as the superego. I also described how the show could be seen as an allegory of the Cold War, as well as how Kirk and company represented the mainstream culture of 1960s. Think about how many times Kirk loses control of his ship, his crew, and even his mind due to drugs or other hostile “alien” influences.
Obviously, my love of TV — not to mention the fact that I had a Star Trek-obsessed friend who had all 79 episodes on tape, paid off. My fellow students, many of whom had watched only a dozen shows for their respective reports, were less enthusiastic since I opted to present first and set the bar impossibly high!
Embracing the Advances
After college, I remained interested in TV but actually never really strived to work in the industry. TV production seemed tedious to me, but I did work briefly at a music recording studio and with a company that 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 kind enough to let us shoot the project in her boutique PR firm’s Manhattan offices over the course of a few summer weekends — and I hated every second of the experience.
As our pilot wasn’t picked up, I opted to stick to my day job and write about 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 had the first commercial DVD player and the first six commercial releases back in April 1997 — the very week they arrived on the market. Even before I bought the player, I knew DVD was going to be a game-changer for packaged 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 made clear, let you pause and rewind live TV. As with a lot of the stuff I’ve described, we take this for granted now, but 20 years ago this was a huge game-changer. Have to take a call, go to the bathroom? Just missed an important line? Rewind it! The DVR, along with on-demand content, ensures that it is difficult to “miss” a show today. How different my life as a TV-addicted child would have been had I had such devices!
The second life-changing device was my first HDTV set. Today we expect our TVs to be thin and wide, but the first HDTV my wife and I purchased was a massive rear projection CRT set. It weighed a couple hundred pounds and was a good 27 inches deep, but it had a 48-inch screen and an amazing picture to display what little content was available. Of course, we had no HD channels at first, and within six months of purchasing it, the set burned in an image! That was a costly mistake, as it resulted 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 a 42-inch plasma TV. As a matter of full disclosure, the company offered an editorial discount and I did buy that TV, spending an unthinkable sum at the time. However, we enjoyed that set for five years until it was 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 stereo sound, multichannel audio — as well as some technologies that even a hardcore early adopter like me didn’t embrace, such as 3D. Even now I’m not entirely sold on 4K because of the limits of content, but I’m watching 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 time shifting but also location shifting of shows. As a self-confessed TV junkie, I could be difficult when on vacation. I would worry, “did my show record,” 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 game changer for me. It allowed me to watch the content I recorded in my living room and watch it while I traveled. It might seem silly to some, but it is so nice 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 to Amazon Prime Video and Netflix. My wife and I do binge some shows, but perhaps because of how I grew up, I still enjoy the weekly schedule, with Sunday being a day of new offerings on HBO, Showtime, Starz and Epix, as well as FX and AMC.
So, when I celebrate my very personal holiday on Aug. 21, I am not just thinking about what cable TV brings me, even if it does provide favorites like The Walking Dead, Forged in Fire and of course Game of Thrones.
That narrow black cable allows me to watch the only sporting event I’ve ever been serious about, the Tour de France, and because of DVRs I can record each stage and fast-forward through the boring parts — because even a hardcore cycling fan will tell you there are hours of boring stuff, and the networks would be quick to switch over to a new production of Heidi at some point!
Now I celebrate Aug. 21 not just for actual “cable TV” but because of all of the advances of TV in general. It isn’t the idiot box that my teacher may have suggested all those years ago. TV is a valid form of entertainment, as well as a critical source of news and information. It provides countless jobs and has become a huge part of the global economy.
Then again, on a personal level, I just love TV.