Friday, November 28, 2014

Television: A Personal History

(Note: When I began the following lengthy essay, I had some consistent policy in mind for when to use "TV" and when to use "television," but this seems to have broken down so that there is no rhyme or reason for my usages.)

I have had a very long history with television. I am 63 years old. My first memory of television must date earlier than 1955. I was of the first generation for whom the one-eyed box served as baby-sitter. My mother would plunk me in front of the tube and do her household chores: bed-making, vacuuming, laundry, cooking, etc. Staring at the television screen is among my earliest memories, though not my earliest. I had yet to learn to control the knobs and dials (there were not yet commercially available remote controls), and so I had to ask my mother to change the station.

One of the things that stands out is that I watched a lot of old movies and cartoons. There were only a few new and recent programs such as "Romper Room," a show aimed at kids my age; "Louise Morgan," a Neolithic talk show; and the local news and weather, of course, which my mother would watch with me. By and large, there was too little television programming to fill even a short broadcast day, so I watched silent cartoons (e.g., "Felix the Cat") from the 1920s and sound cartoons from the 1930s and early 1940s. The motion picture industry was afraid of television in those days and had banned the sale of post-World War II films of any kind to television. Consequently, though born in 1951, at the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century, my early experience of television was of looking through a window onto the first half of the century. Today, television has built up more than half a century of its own programming; now they don't need the motion picture industry in order to broadcast 24/7. (Yet there has been a truce between movies and television since the 1960s and now a marriage that seems uncharacteristically solid by Hollywood standards.)

Most television stations went down between midnight and six a.m. I remember my brother and I getting up early on Saturday mornings to watch Laurel and Hardy and/or the Three Stooges on TV; only, if we got up too early, there was nothing but a test pattern on the screen until the station signed on. Speaking of the Stooges, et al., these were favorites of my brother and I, but my very favorite was the Marx Brothers whose movies my mother let me watch, mainly during the weekdays, while she did her chores. I remember her suggesting that if I liked the Marx Brothers, I would surely like the Ritz Brothers. I didn't. They made several films between 1936 and 1942, but the few I saw were boring and decidedly unfunny. Another favorite program was the first filmed, as opposed to live broadcast TV series, which also showed the first re-runs in the 1950s: "I Love Lucy." I used to watch episodes of that show that I suppose were only a year or so old when I watched them. This was the beginning of the trend of television feeding off of its own inventory instead of having to use early-twentieth century cartoons and movies. Those movies were often made and took place either pre-World War II or during the war. I might well have thought that the war was on-going, at first, until my Mom assured me that it wasn't. My fears could not be so easily assuaged when it came to TV promos for I-do-not-know-what service or agency, but they showed Nikita Khrushchev banging on the table at the U.N., and shouting in Russian, which the narrator translated as "We will bury you!" Why this angry old man wanted to bury me, I could not fathom, but he scared the stuff out of me. Other ads were less threatening. "A tab in your washer is all that you need,/ Starts whitening action with light-n-ing speed." That early television jingle for bleach tabs still pops into my head sometimes.

Television, as almost nobody knows, was invented in 1927 by Philo Farnsworth. I asked my parents who invented television once, and they declared that it was invented by many people and not by any one person. They didn't know. There had been experiments in hybrid mechanico-electrical television before Farnsworth, but his was the first all-electronic television system. His invention was stolen from him by RCA, and although the U.S. Patent Office declared in Farnsworth's favor in the mid-1930s (1936, I believe), he never made the fortune he deserved because his patents expired in 1947 just as the popularity of television in the United States took off. His was the same system--with some technical improvements added by RCA--that lasted from the 1930s to the 2000s when high definition television was widely introduced and eventually supplanted the old standard.

Another little-known aspect of television history is that Great Britain had a more sophisticated television system in operation than the United States did from 1936 to 1939, even though the technology had been invented in the United States. (A Scotsman named John Logie Baird had invented what was probably the best of the mechanico-electrical television systems, but when he first saw Farnsworth's system he realized that his own system was doomed.) The reasons why the British system developed more rapidly than American systems were several: 1) The United States is vast and requires many television stations to reach every part of it, while Great Britain is small enough that a large part of the country could be covered by even a single station. 2) While the television manufacturing business was in private hands in Britain, the main signal broadcaster was the BBC, which, again, only had to reach a small amount of territory (and densely populated) to make television broadcasting worthwhile. 3) The BBC also set up a regular programming schedule of six hours a day, six days a week; contrast this with the United States where, during the same period, a typical station might run three or four hours of programming, three or four days a week. This made the expense of a television set more attractive to British customers than their American counterparts because at least there was "something to watch" on British television. There was a joke in the fledgling television industry in 1939: "There are only 100 TV sets in New York City, and 99 of them belong to RCA executives."

The German government (i.e., the Nazis) never allowed private industry to produce sets for the average consumer, maintaining state control over viewing as well as broadcasting. (The 1936 Berlin Olympics were seen on television but only in a few public viewing rooms in a few German cities.) Consequently, Germans saw even less proliferation of television than Americans did. (BTW, when Farnsworth went to Germany to collect royalties for television from the government, they chased him out of the country, practically at gunpoint.) Television broadcasting was curtailed almost everywhere--with the possible exception of some U.S. markets--for the duration of World War II, but came back up in Britain in 1946. Even after World War II, the price of a television set in Britain remained slightly lower than in the United States, because the volume of sales allowed the price to stay low, but by the 1950s, U.S. TV sets were becoming cheaper as Americans bought sets by the millions.

(Note: How television helped win the war even though it was largely suspended for the duration: The factories that had made TV sets before World War II were converted to make radar screens; the development of radar technology, more advanced in Britain and the United States than in Germany and Japan, had a profound impact on the balance in air power between the combatants in World War II.)

From the 1950s, we had a TV set in our living room, which was a good-sized room, longer east to west than north to south, and the TV occupied the western end of the room. (In December, our Christmas tree occupied the eastern end.) The television was faced by a couch with an easy chair on one side and a rocker on the other. This was pre-transistors, and TV sets, like radios, had tubes inside them. The screen just went black when enough of these tubes burned out, and the tubes would need to be replaced. When the TV went on the fritz, we either took it to the little shop, jam-packed with TV sets and parts, where we had bought it, or else the shop owner or one of his sons made a house call.  I cannot remember the name of the man who fixed our TV. He was Armenian, though, as so many citizens of Worcester, Massachusetts, are. He would open the back of the TV, bend over and take various instruments from his worn leather tool belt. (Mercifully, I never saw the crack in the back the way I did when the plumber came by.)

Every few years, we got a new TV set for the living room. Always black and white.  Maybe we went through three or four over two decades(?). In addition, in the early 1960s, we got a portable TV, also black and white, which my parents put in their bedroom. Later this TV moved down to the back porch where I would watch "Honey West" (1965), while my Dad watched "Gomer Pyle, USMC" (1964-1969) in the living room, only a few feet away. What can I say? Adolescent boys are driven by forces more powerful than the funny-bone.

That portable TV has many associations. While it was in my parent's bedroom, I saw parts of shows I was never allowed to watch otherwise, including "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "That Was the Week That Was," and others. In the summers we took that set on vacation and I remember seeing some shows that I didn't see the rest of the year. There was "G.E. Theater," for example, an anthology series with a memorable episode about Christopher Clayton Hutton, a British intelligence officer who invented the "cloth escape map," an ingenious device that allowed prisoners of war to secret a highly durable map of the territory in which they were captured and use it to find their way home once they escaped. (In 1942, American intelligence studied the British cloth maps and began issuing their own version of them to American servicemen, especially pilots. I am sad to say that although I had a silk map of the Philippines when I was a child, it went missing.)

The most memorable thing I saw on the portable set, was the two-hour-old video of the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby in Dallas, Texas, two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. An irony: The night of the assassination of JFK, one of my favorite anthology series, "The Great Adventure," had been scheduled to air an episode about Wild Bill Hickock, starring Lloyd Bridges. I had been looking forward to it, but, naturally, the program was preempted by live coverage of Lyndon Johnson and Mrs. Kennedy arriving in Washington, D.C. on Air Force One. When that episode of "The Great Adventure" finally aired, many months later, it ended with a re-enactment of the assassination of Hickock in 1876.

I remember traveling to Washington, DC, in 1962--so, before the assassination--to take my maternal grandmother to visit my grandfather's grave in Arlington. He had been a World War I veteran. My Dad and I stayed in a motel and we watched "Have Gun Will Travel" and "The Jack Paar Show," and my father advised me not to let Mom know that he let me stay up so late. I never did.

My parents never accepted those newfangled color TVs. My uncle, that is, my father's older brother, had a brand new house and a brand new color TV set, while my father had a fifty-year-old house and the latest (more or less) black-and-white. My parents' chief rationale for not going color was that most programs were in black-and-white, anyway. This argument fell apart in January 1966 when the television industry launched a new policy: All new television programs would be in color. This meant that, although any program that was already black-and-white stayed that way, for the time being, all new shows would be in color from then on. And most shows that were renewed for the following fall would be "color-cast," too. My favorite show--or my hormones' favorite show--at the time, was "Honey West," about the eponymous, gadget-enhanced super-detective. The late Anne Francis, the star of the show, said that she was told that if the show got renewed in the fall of 1966, it would be in color, but it was cancelled. A show that did premier in color on the 12th of January 1966, was "Batman." I was never a big fan, but I watched this goofy show often enough because everybody else was watching it. Despite the growing proportion of TV shows in color, my parents never did buy a color set.

We got the best picture on our TV set when we tuned in to the Boston stations. There was channel four, which was an NBC/Westinghouse station (many if not most of Westinghouse's stations were NBC affiliates; most of their programming came from NBC, but Westinghouse produced a few of its own programs); there was a CBS channel on five, and seven was ABC. Before stations began playing musical chairs in the 1970s and '80s (in Boston, channel five became an ABC station and seven became CBS), and especially before Fox took over a number of former-CBS stations in the early '90s, which network was on which channel had been almost the same everywhere in the United States, especially in the big cities. When I moved from Boston to San Francisco in 1980, I was surprised to find that the same channels were paired with the same networks as they had once been in Boston. Eventually, I found out that this had been deliberate and no coincidence. Four was always NBC, Five always CBS, and seven always ABC because the big three networks had grabbed low station numbers in the 1940s, and each of them took the same channel number in each market. There was an early fourth network called DuMont, which existed only from 1946 to 1956, but I do not remember watching it, which could mean that it was not available in my area; my partner who is older than I am and lived in New York in the '50s, does remember it.

Smaller cities often did not have their own television stations in the early days of television, unless there was a history of experimentation with television in that particular town; for example, Schenectady, New York, and Lincoln, Massachusetts, had experimental Television stations back in the 1930s. Worcester, Massachusetts, where I grew up, did not have a station until about 1968 when the State Mutual Life Insurance Company, with their headquarter only about a mile from where I grew up, built UHF channel 28. This brings to me to the difference between VHF and UHF. UHF required a separate tuner from the standard VHF tuner. VHF required a standard antenna, either set-top "rabbit ears" or a roof top antenna. The VHF channels would go from 2 to 12, and the UHF channels were all double digits, often 28, 29, 38, 44, etcetera. The DuMont and early Fox networks were generally relegated to UHF, which made their viewership limited to people who had sets with UHF tuners. DuMont never overcame this problem and went out of business, whereas Fox did overcome it when it acquired all those former-CBS stations in the '90s. Channels 38 and 44, were strong, popular channels in both the Boston and San Francisco areas, probably for same reason. They all showed lots of old movies. Of course, when broadcast channels were included on cable line-ups, VHF and UHF channels were on equal footing for the first time; you didn't need to adjust your VHF rabbit ears (or rooftop antenna) or your UHF hoop on the back of your set.

When I moved to central Virginia a little over a decade ago, I saw another odd result of the big network claims on certain channel numbers: The Shenandoah Valley never had good broadcast television reception, so in the 1970s a cable system was established. This system included the NBC station from Washington, DC, which, of course, was on broadcast channel four, and wound up on channel four of the new cable system. Years later, Charlottesville, Virginia, acquired its own NBC broadcast affiliate, channel 29. When it replaced the Washington NBC affiliate on the cable system, 29 took over cable channel four. Most of the cable customers in this area never wonder why they are watching channel 29 on channel four.

For a long time, channel six was unavailable in most (though, somehow, not in all ) markets, because the FCC decided to put the FM radio spectrum where television channel six is located. I remember being puzzled in the early '70s when I was tuning up and down the FM range and stumbled on the dialog from an NBC-TV soap opera at one end of the dial.

I left home in 1970 to go to college. The TV sets in the dorms were color, but most of them were monopolized by the other students. I did find a TV in the basement that hardly anybody watched, and I watched "The Dick Cavett Show," a great talk show, and other more or less memorable programs that nobody else wanted to watch. Later, during the '70s and '80s, I went through periods when I did not own a TV set at all. I nevertheless saw the advances in television and its accessories during this time. I remember seeing a store that sold video recorder-players in the early '70s. The only movie available on video at the time was "The Godfather," and the cost of these devices was prohibitive. Once, when I did own a TV set in the '70s, I saw an episode of the now-classic detective series, "Columbo," in which William Shatner played a man who used a newfangled video recorder-player to create a time-shifted alibi for a murder. Columbo figured out how the video recorder-player works and solved the case. How dated that episode would seem now.

The 1970s saw the beginning of cable TV as we now know it. Cable had been regarded as a necessary evil for people who lived in valleys where they could not get broadcast television. But the idea of charging people to watch cable TV in big cities was in its infancy in the '60s and '70s. "TV Guide," magazine--which used to be a publication aimed at thinking adults instead of being aimed, as it is now, at people who cannot tell the difference between reality and fiction--had articles on the coming cable revolution by the late '60s. They called it "pay TV" at that time, because the fact that people would have to pay to watch television was the novelty that jumped out at everyone. I remember trying to explain it to a classmate in college in 1970, and he couldn't comprehend why someone who was from, say, New York, New York, as he was, would pay to watch cable when New York is bombarded by many broadcast stations. It was neither the first nor the last time that I ever "lost" an argument to someone who turned out to be entirely wrong.

During the '70s, HBO, TBS and TNT came on-line. I remember my first exposure to a cable system that allowed someone in Ohio to watch TV stations from Chicago and Atlanta. It seemed a new world. (Of course, valley-bound cable systems had been doing something like that for years, pulling in channels from the nearest big city, though it might not be at the distance of Chicago and Atlanta.) I remember being slightly less impressed when I saw someone else's cable system in the '70s, because they got HBO, and that seemed to be about it. By 1980, however, cable was big business and everybody wanted it. CSPAN and other services had been added, and the picture on every channel was perfect, no more snowy channels like the ones we got when I was a kid, getting snowy pictures from Manchester, New Hampshire, and Providence, Rhode Island, in contrast to the Boston stations, which were crisp and clear. (Although I am currently staying in a motel where the CBS channel on the cable is snowy for no good reason.) I think I first saw closed captioning on a big screen TV in a restaurant during the 1980s. The '80s were also the era of video rental stores, and the dawn of music videos and MTV. (Yes, kids, the "M" in MTV once stood for "music," and that cable channel once actually showed music videos!)

As cable spread, I became aware of a growing political problem. Cable television was--and still is--treated as a monopoly utility so that local governments license a single cable company to operate a monopoly in that locality. This is a system that goes from flawed to worse very quickly. Like all monopolies, the cable company has its customers over a barrel, and if, in theory, residents have some recourse by complaining to the government body licensing the cable company, in actuality, the cable companies just contribute to the politicians' campaigns and your service complaint goes nowhere. The city of Allentown, Pennsylvania, once had a suitable solution. (I wonder whether they still have it.) They licensed two cable companies and set them in competition with each other. Customers whose complaints were not satisfied simply switched to the opposing cable company at no extra charge. Prices went down and service quality went up.

Another result of the politicization of cable television is not just systemic but actively corrupt. In sprawling Los Angeles, California, each section of the city and county got its own cable system. When it came to wiring South Central L.A., the poorest section of the city, a system of corruption kept the right to wire the neighborhood in play for many years as the holders of the right--themselves often ex-politicians and bureaucrats who left government to go into the cable business (in one case, after having written the ordinances governing cable systems!). During this time, not a single foot of cable was actually laid. The pols kept saying that they did not want to sell the rights to a big cable company like Warner, but, in the end, that is exactly who they sold them to! During all of this, a pair of private businessmen who actually had the means and experience to wire the neighborhood, were trying to get the rights, but the ex-pols played keep-away, dragging the whole thing out as long as they could, so that they could get rich selling and reselling the rights. The two businessmen asked what they could do to get the rights, and they were told that they should donate to the mayor's campaign fund. They didn't do that, and therefore never got the contract.  Ultimately, the two businessmen sued the city in federal court and a judge ruled that the city had violated the civil rights of these businessmen (who were black, by the way). No ruling on whether the irony that black and Hispanic politicians and bureaucrats of Los Angeles had violated the civil rights of the black and Hispanic residents of Los Angeles by keeping so many of them from having the latest communications technology in their homes for so many years.

About four years ago, my own access to television technology underwent a radical change. I had had cable for many years, both in California and when I moved to Virginia. I had also discovered the power of Internet video-viewing on newer computers. When we moved into our current apartment, we had to set up our TV set near the wall where the cable connection was available. We were dissatisfied with this location and wanted to move our set to an area of our apartment away from the cable outlet, but this would have meant the cable provider drilling a new hole from the outside--verboten to our landlord--or else running cable across the room and underfoot. What to do? Finally, I was watching a video of Glenn Beck on the Internet, and he announced that his new Internet television network was going to become available on Roku. I looked into Roku and found out that, through the Internet networks Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix, a Roku viewer could connect his TV set to the Internet and watch many, though not all, of the same programs that a regular television viewer could watch, plus many on-demand offerings that a cable viewer could not see. Our television viewing now consists of a combination of about ninety percent viewing of older movies and series on the above-mentioned three Internet networks, and about ten percent viewing on our DVD player. We still have basic cable, which allows us to record programs from television and then watch them later. We especially use it to watch CBS programs because, while they are available on Amazon Prime, there is at an additional charge per episode. Meanwhile, NBC, ABC, and Fox let Hulu stream their programs about 24 hours after original broadcast. Also, through Netflix, we can still rent DVDs of movies and TV series that are not available online. Another feature of Roku is availability of the Internet channel Pandora, which offers a stream of music that can be tailored to the listeners preferences.

Telecommunications is a brave new world, indeed. It seems obvious that the future holds some sort of overall integration of media. People are already able to access their interactive computer functions through the same devices that allow them to watch Hulu or Netflix or download a book from Amazon's Kindle store. "Star Trek: The Next Generation" used to show characters going into their quarters and asking one interactive computer to play a certain piece of music, change the temperature of the room, or access information. Any of that that isn't already possible soon will be. The main change will be the diffusion of that sort of technology across our entire society.

A final caveat. In my reading about the history of television, I was struck by the irony that David Sarnoff, William Paley and other pioneers in the television industry saw television as an instrument for global communication that could do good by getting people in touch with each other and allowing them to see and understand each other. The irony lies in the underhanded way that Sarnoff went about controlling communications through power grabs, back-biting, intimidation, and in some cases even theft. How did these visionaries expect to achieve global harmony and good will when their methods of achieving it exemplified the exact opposite of harmony and good will?

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Fowler, I believe I have a rather unique connection to you: I'm fairly sure we grew up in the same house in Worcester. I was doing some research on the house (just for my own edification) and ran into a small mystery. If you have a few minutes and the inclination to revisit the past, I was hoping you could solve it for me. Is there some way I could contact you?

    Thanks for your time.