A little background information
When my grandparents were born, the main means of transportation was the horse and buggy. It wasn’t until 1908 that the Ford Motor Company offered the first mass-produced automobile. My parents took cars for granted and grew up listening to the radio. By the time I was born, television was about to become a mainstay of the American home. Enter TV dinners! Phones were rotary. If you weren’t home, they called back later. Life was simple. My youngest son was an infant when I got my first computer. It was a Mac then, and I’m still a Mac user. Shortly after I got that computer, I downloaded one of my paintings and used up all the memory. Fast forward—I have my entire portfolio downloaded and I’m not even close to using up the memory. My kids grew up without cell phones and were spared the possible agony of being bullied on Facebook. Today, they can’t imagine life without a cell phone. To be honest, neither can I. We’re running around with tiny computers in our purses and pockets. The built-in cameras on those phones are immortalizing every major moment of my granddaughter’s life. She’s two. I can’t even guess how technology will have shaped her world by the time she’s my age.
Technology has improved television over the years. Today everything is high-definition and the program selections are endless. We have cable, satellite dishes, Hulu, Netflix and so much more. But one thing hasn’t changed. Television continues to be a major part of most people’s lives. This brings me to the topic of today’s blog. I wrote this piece for a writing contest soliciting articles about technology. I didn’t win anything—didn’t even get accepted into the magazine. But, I stumbled across it today on my computer and decided it was worth posting. Baby boomers can identify with much of it. The rest of you, read it and be amazed.
TV and Me…
To TV or not to TV. For some, that is the question. I don’t have any doubt that the advent of television changed the world and society as we know it. Some argue it’s all for the good. Some take a darker view. My guess is, it’s like life—complex. Maybe the overall effects are incalculable.
My earliest years were television free. But by the time I was three or four, several families on our street had purchased that miracle of modern entertainment. As luck would have it, my parents were good friends with one of those families. Every Saturday evening found us sitting in their living room, transfixed, watching Milton Berle on the Texaco Star Theater. It was television’s biggest hit. Everything was in black and white, of course. Back then, we never even imagined the possibility of color. Ignorance is bliss and we were blissfully happy. Radio was passé; at last, we could see as well as hear!
Saturday Night Wrestling followed “Uncle Milty.” Young as I was, I still remember Gorgeous George, the premier wrestler of his day, entering the ring in a sequined robe, platinum hair curled and gleaming, while his “valet” sprayed perfume into the air. The crowd was astounded and so was I. That level of flamboyance would not be seen again until the emergence of Liberace, years later.
Women’s wrestling or, my favorite, midget wrestling frequently preceded the main event. No one had heard the term “little people” in the 1950s. I pleaded to stay up, usually to no avail. The kids were relegated to a bedroom. An hour or two later, my parents wrapped my groggy, PJ clad body in a warm blanket and carried me home to my own little bed. Grown-ups had all the fun.
Our TV friends lived at the end of the street, but directly across the street lived the Peters family. Sally Peters was a year older than me. She had bad teeth and a vocabulary to match. She also had a TV set. So every afternoon, I found myself drawn to her door. It was Howdy Doody time and I couldn’t miss it. Howdy was broadcast smack dab between the Kate Smith Hour and dinnertime. I usually arrived just as Kate embarked on her signature sign-off song, When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain. I harbored a deep resentment toward the hefty singer with the warbling contralto voice. I was sure that, if she were not on the air, Howdy Doody would start an hour earlier. That woman was clearly interfering with the enjoyment of every child in America lucky enough to have access to a television set.
We moved to another town when I was five. My new best friend, Donna, lived just a few houses away. Her family owned a coveted TV. We didn’t sit all day in front of the set. We played house ball and hopscotch. We fastened roller-skates onto our tennis shoes using skate keys that we kept safe on strings around our necks. Often, we played dress-up. In the summer we spent hours in Donna’s canvas swimming pool. It had a real shower. Hook it up to a hose and, “Voilà!” a steady stream of cool water, delicious on a hot day.
Despite our large repertoire of activities, Donna and I did watch TV, especially when it rained. Only three TV stations existed at that time leaving us with few viewing choices. The pickings were slim. Daytime programming depended heavily on old movies, especially old westerns. Being a huge cowboy fan, that was fine with me. Hopalong Cassidy was the biggest western star at that time and I owned the complete Hoppy outfit including a set of six-guns. Mom tied those guns down because, otherwise, they flopped against my scrawny little legs turning them black and blue. I was so cowboy crazy that my mother could get me to eat almost anything simply by giving it a western name such as “Ranger Joe” cereal. I’m not sure how old I was before I found out cowboy eggs were just plain old soft-boiled eggs.
My parents finally bought a TV set when I was eight—a Philco in a large console cabinet, the deluxe model. I remember it vividly because it arrived on my eighth birthday, just hours before the big party. It wasn’t really a birthday present, but it sure felt like one. At long last I could watch television in the cozy confines of my own home! I remember running downstairs when I woke up the next morning to see what was on TV. All I saw was a test pattern. Twenty-four-hour programming didn’t exist in the 1950s.
In the 1960s TV became more sophisticated. Cable was on its way. Color had arrived, but it wasn’t until the mid 70s that color sets became the norm. Since I have such a vivid recollection of that first black and white set, it seems odd to me that I have no memory of a color TV materializing in our home. One day, everything magically became colorized. Tinkerbelle ran her wand across the screen and, suddenly, Disney’s Wonderful World of Color was on the air.
Early TV portrayed a simpler time. Programs contained little violence and no sex. From Ozzie and Harriet to the Dick Van Dyke Show, couples in sitcoms slept in twin beds. Sometimes I miss the innocence of the 50s and 60s until I remember all the stereotypes, both racial and sexual, that were prevalent. However, by the late 1960s, a number of controversial new shows hit the air. The Smothers Brothers drove TV censors crazy, Laugh-In arrived and television finally had a major hit with an all black cast. The Cosby Show, finally featured an African-American family headed by educated professionals. By then, I was a young adult. My friends and I chafed at societal norms, protested the Viet Nam war, campaigned for Eugene McCarthy, and smoked a little marijuana on the side. We were “hip”, or so we thought, and we embraced TVs transformation. Then, in 1971, All In the Family debuted with its comedic but unflinching approach to divisive subjects. Liberal or conservative, it seemed that almost everyone in America loved Archie Bunker. The country was laughing, not only at Archie, but also at itself.
Women’s roles on TV were changing, and so were my own expectations as a young, twenty-something female. Traditionally, the women on TV sitcoms had been housewives or maids. Father knew best, and wives were supportive. Suddenly, there were shows with strong female characters. That Girl arrived in 1966. Finally, a sitcom that featured a single woman who was not a domestic or living with her parents. Soon to follow were the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Murphy Brown and Ally McBeal. I no longer dreamed of marital bliss. I wanted to be a career woman and work in a big city. I moved to Boston, landed a job in advertising, and didn’t marry until shortly after my thirtieth birthday. At forty, I was the single mother of two little boys. Finding freedom more fulfilling than togetherness, I never remarried. Did watching independent women live happy, single lives alter the direction of my own life? I wonder.
If the last few paragraphs give the impression that stereotypes on TV have gone away, I apologize. “The times they are a changin'”—but slowly. Stereotypes of all kinds still persist. Thank goodness for Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers (my hero).
As I matured, TV continued to bombard me (and the world) with a barrage of media coverage. Through the years I’ve watched conflict and dissent. Sometimes it appeared that the country was coming apart at the seams. Sometimes it still feels that way. I’ve observed riots, sat on the front lines of war, seen assassinations unfold, and attended the funeral of a president from the safety of my own home. For better or worse, things keep changing and TV has become a major catalyst. In the late 60s, I found it all exhilarating. Today, as a parent and teacher, I’m afraid that children spend too much time in front of a television set. I’m concerned that it is squelching their creativity, changing their brain patterns, making them numb to violence. (I’m not addressing social media today, but if you spoon that into the mix, you can triple my concern.) For more on this, check out http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/tv-affects-child.html#
Television continues to influence our thoughts and ideas. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes it’s not. It has been called a vast wasteland. It also brings the most astounding, wonderful things into our homes—moon landings and lions and tigers and bears, oh, yes! Maybe it’s not a matter of should we watch TV, but how much. It’s easy to come home after a rough day at work and plunk down in front of the TV. Sometimes it’s all I can muster. However, I still read. I intend to finish writing that book, continue painting, exercise, dance, spend time with friends and family. TV is a filler, not the mainstay of my life. I want it to stay that way.
The typical American spends between two-and-a-half to five hours a day in front of a TV set. I read that somewhere, and I believe it’s true. There are people who keep their television set blaring every waking moment. I know some of them. Conversely, some of my friends proudly boast that they don’t even own a TV, or that the one they have is off the grid. “I only get the public broadcasting station and a few local channels,” they say. Or, “ I only watch an occasional movie on Netflix.” As for me, I have a few guilty pleasures I’m not willing to give up. I learned to fly with Peter Pan, have seen the best and worst of human nature play out on that small screen, been shocked at times, sometimes bored and often highly entertained. Television is sometimes a purveyor of fear; other times a beacon of hope. It depends on what you choose to watch. For better or worse, TV has had a hand in shaping who I’ve become. Maybe TV deserves some of the credit.
Before you leave, follow some of the links to see what America was watching as TV came of age. You’ll be amazed—and entertained!