Man came by to hook up my cable TV
We settled in for the night, my baby and me
We switched ‘round and ‘round ‘til half past dawn
There’s 57 channels and nothin’ on
— Bruce Springsteen
“Hey, is there anything good on tonight?”
Back in the days before streaming networks, that was a fairly common question. Lately I’ve been reminiscing about our television past. I’m starting to miss it, even in its limited form.
At the risk of sounding even more like an elderly person, I’m going to share what it was like to watch TV forty years ago. Or, if you’re “elderly” like me, I’ll just be refreshing your memory.
Back in the 70s and 80s, we didn’t get to pick what we watched or when we wanted to watch it. What was on was on when it was on, and you couldn’t rewind if you missed something. Barbaric, I know. We did have this thing called the TV Guide, which was a tiny little magazine that listed all the shows and showtimes for every channel in your area for the whole month. At least it wasn’t completely random. You could look at the listings for the next week and see that yes, your two favorite shows would both be airing at 7:00 pm on Thursday. At the same time, on different channels. Quite the conundrum. So you would have to choose between the two.
Then the VCR came along. Suddenly, overlapping shows didn’t matter because we could record one show while watching the other — if our parents could manage to set the clock correctly. Yay! No longer did we have to argue with our siblings about whether we would watch Wonder Woman or Diff’rent Strokes.
Still, we were stuck with the programming handed to us by the networks. Which was usually fine, because one channel or another would almost always have something interesting to watch. And if not, we could just pop in that tape of The Love Boat and create our own rerun night. Even better, we might be able to talk Mom or Dad into a trip to the Video-Rama.
Enter cable TV, and our entertainment choices blew up overnight. Now, in addition to the three major networks and a few local stations, we could watch bigger stations like WGN in Chicago or TBS in Atlanta. Then Fox, CNN, MTV (yes!), and of course any premium movie channels like HBO. Everything remained on a schedule, so we still had to wait for something to come on or plan for it. But wow! So many choices, at any time of day or night. Which helped give birth to an early form of the sport known as Channel Surfing. For some reason, the bigger the pool of shows became, the more we became dissatisfied with what we were watching. Always lurking in the subconscious was the notion that on some other channel there was a more exciting show. With barely the flick of a thumb, we could switch between shows — partly to avoid commercials but also to fill our heads with constant eyeball candy in case we became bored for more than three seconds. It probably sounded something like this:
Daisy Duke (on CB): Bo! Luke! Enos is right on your tail!
Luke: Copy, Cousin, we’re gonna take that detour by Crystal Creek and he’ll never
You spin me round round baby
Like a record baby round round
Harry Caray: … and that’s the inning! Cubs still up by three, the Dodgers having a tough time with the at bats here at Wrigley
Roscoe: I’ll get you Duke Boys!
Bo & Luke: Yeeeeeeeeehawwwwwwwwwww
Because I’m bad, I’m bad, shamone (bad, bad, really, really bad)
You know I’m bad, I’m bad (bad bad)
You know it (really, really bad)
Shamone, you know it
“Empire Carpet has first quality, brand name carpeting at only $6.95 per yard, installed with padding. And we’ll bring the samples to you! 588-2300, Empire….”
Harry Caray: Take me out to the ballgame, take me out to the crowd…
Enter Mom, wondering out loud why us kids can’t watch just one thing for a change???!!?? If you’re currently a parent of teens and wondering if you’ve failed because those damn devices are constantly in their faces, I give you cable TV in the 1980s. I know it’s not a contest, but I think we were way more annoying.
And here we are in the streaming era. Not only can we watch just about anything we want, we can watch it any time we want. Hey, what’s a schedule? And wait, did another method actor mumble through their dialogue again? Just smash that rewind button and go back 10 seconds. Well, I mean, do that a few times because what the hell is anyone even saying anymore? Fine. Put the subtitles on.
1980s me would not believe this fantasy. Seriously, you can watch anything at any time without going to the video store? Endless entertainment??? No more clicking around? Just watch whatever you choose? Sounds like paradise.
Then we flop ourselves down for a night of TV, 2023-style. Let’s try Netflix. Scroll, scroll, scroll. No? Okay, Hulu. Scroll. Scroll. Maybe? No. How about Apple TV? Hmm. Seen it. Seen it. Eww, that was terrible. Another wealthy, scandalous family out to murder each other? Nope. Huh. Back to Netflix. Uhhhhh? No? You’re right, that looked weird.
Thirty minutes later and we find ourselves watching Seinfeld reruns. There are currently 817,000 individual shows available to stream and we are watching Seinfeld. Again. And I start to wonder how this galaxy of choice and constant availability has made our TV experience better. When we can have anything, it’s oddly not as satisfying as it seems like it should be. Maybe having a limit to our choices is actually better. I seriously consider if it’s time to ditch streaming altogether and rely on the major networks and DVDs. After all, most streaming channels have commercials anyway, so it wouldn’t be that much different, would it?
It might be fun to turn back the hands of time and start asking again, “Hey, is there anything good on tonight?”