Blog Pile

The Death of TV As I Knew It

flickr cc licensed photo by Kevin Steele

I grew up immersed in, surrounded by, bombarded by television. As much as I complain about the generalizations of the “digital natives” I accept that somehow the absorption I had in television as the primary source of media must have shaped me. Somehow. I saw a lot of TV.

Somehow blatantly obvious, television as I knew it is long dead. And that’s okay.

Growing up in Baltimore, my mom told me I learned my numbers from the TV Guide; fortunately, in Baltimore, the major network channels were 2, 11, and 13, so I guess I learned addition from there as well. I watched a lot of cartoons, a lot of Bugs Bunny, and perhaps I was seeded for a future in Arizona based on the landscapes the Roadrunner ran through. When I was diagnosed diabetic at age 7, my grandmother offered a reward- if I learned how to do my own insulin injections myself for 2 weeks, she would buy me my own TV.

Sure, I would stick myself with needles for a TV! I loved that little black and white set. I may have thought it was a magical window into another world, but all of the movement through the window came out of it, not into it.

flickr cc licensed photo by dog.breath

I can recall sitting in our living room in 1969 watching Neil Armstrong step down and bounce gleefully across the surface of the moon. There were the class assemblies when we’d gather to watch the Apollo crew return to earth… we watched on TVs mounted on carts in the auditorium. There was not understanding why the games at the Olympics stopped in 1972, it started not to make sense.

There was the time a kid who was the first I knew to have color television invited me over to watch it. I was not all that impressed with Richard Silverman as the movie was “The Wizard of Oz” (which starts off in Black and White) until Dorothy’s house landed in a new kind of land.

Heck, I thought the Brady Bunch really was this cool happy, perfect family, completely oblivious to the odd stories we heard later about the actors. I think I had a thing for Mary Tyler Moore. The Six Million Dollar Man was believable. Then there was the early teen years with a major, major Charlies Angles crush in Farah Fawcett; yes I had that poster (no more details available)

There were sit-coms, we watched them as a family, at dinner. All in the Family may look quaint in its 1970s sets, but it busted out tough topics not broached on TV like racism (remember Archie Bunker and George Jefferson arguing over whether God was black or white), homosexuality, women’s rights, etc. Strangely, Archive Bunker was in the end, not a hated character, more pitiable. It broke conventions, and I think I saw every episode of that, as well as M*A*S*H (the latter likely 3 times over).

There was the anticipation for September when new shows would all premiere the same week, and the stacking of TV shows in those months when Nielsen was doing their ratings (using technology of pencil and paper logs).

When I was in middle school, I heard people talking about this new show that was live on NBC on Saturday nights, late. It was not even on the local NBC station in Baltimore, I could get reception from channel 4 in Washington DC with foil on the antenna and still it was snowy, but this radical show where they made fun of commercials (Akryod’s Bass-o-matic), news, and had some bizarre music acts like Leon Redbone and his tuba or the wild imitation of Joe Cocker by John Belushi.

Cable TV came when I was in high school, and oh, was that different. Well it was from broadcast TV. HBO actually played movies all the time. Then there was MTV- I saw it from the start, maybe not from the first Video Killed the Television Star, but remember thinking WTF is “Flock of Seagulls?”, but getting addicted to the new form, new sounds like the Go-Gos, the Eurthymics, the Stray Cats, Split Enz, Billy Idol, Duran Duran, Adam Ant, Bow Wow Wow, stuff not on the radio where I lived. And what was it about those Vee-jays that made them so calculatedly likable?

Last time I checked (and ti was a while ago) I did not see any music playing on MTV.

That was the TV I grew up on, and it is dead.

flickr cc licensed photo by Kevin Steele

The TV that I absorbed was controlled by networks, the content, the time it was shown, was in someone else’s hands. I could not interact with it (besides changing channels); I could not comment on it, I was in fact, a pure consumer of content. But we did not of anything else, and TV shows became a center point of conversation (“Did you see the show….”) or the family dinner focus.

Was I adversely affected by constant exposure to the repeated violence of poor Coyote and Elmer Fudd? Was I stunted by the writing of sit coms? Maybe.

Fast forward to now, 2008. I live in a small town in Arizona 100+ miles away from Phoenix, and receive no television signals. There is cable television available, but I have chosen not to subscribe. It does not offer me anything.

Yet I have watched all five seasons of Six Feet Under… on DVD. Last year, I watched the entire season of Lost… on iTunes downloads, viewing on my iPod as I traveled. I’ve recently been browsing and watching content on Hulu; I was able to see the clips from last night’s Saturday Night Live just this morning on Hulu. (“Not Quite from Live From Saturday Night…). We have all the independent production of any Joe with a video camera and net connection to YouTube. And I don’t find much conversation around a show on TV, it’s about some video on the internet.

Watching shows, movies, when I want them, over the internet… that is not the TV I remember. I am marveling at the speed at which the Internet has changed the game for television, and am eager to see if the industry can really find a modern way, or fade off to the distance. It has not only been flattened, TV has been put to rest. I don’t know what to call this new stuff, but it’s not TV as I knew it.

And that is more than fine with me.

Is it even TV- “Tele-Vision” -televised vision, anymore?

But did that long exposure to TV affect me?

I knew I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque…

Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. Interesting an useful post.

    I watched quite a bit of television when I was young, and was shaped by shows like the Thunderbirds (and, I guess, Bugs Bunny and Road Runner, but Thunderbirds was by far and away my favorite).

    I was upset when Kennedy was assassinated, because that’s all there was on TV – my cartoons were canceled. I remember Expo 67 and the Six-Day War, the Moon Landing, the Munich Olympics, and much more.

    But then in middle school I stopped watching TV almost completely. I would watch the occasional program, but I spent much more of my time in my room, reading, playing and making games (esp. Strat-O-Matic baseball) with my brothers, making projects, etc.

    I have a TV in my room for a couple of years in my teens, but when I left home at 18 I left the TV behind – and did not have one again for almost 10 years (I didn’t have a bed either; I slept on the floor). The entire tim I went to university I read books, listened to music, or (later) worked on my computer.

    I’ve had a TV for the last 10 or 15 years, but I hardly watch it – my attention is no longer focused on the box. It’s background noise that amuses me as I focus my attention – and my learning – on the computer. And when I finally got an iPod a few years ago, music flooded back into my life like it never had before.

    From my perspective, the main result of my minimal TV viewing is that it made me… different.

    There’s a lot of things a lot of people believe that I’m pretty sure were, if you will, ‘programmed’ into them – some intentionally, some unintentionally. Attitudes, forms of reasoning, background beliefs, judgments.

    I’m not one to linger on the ‘net generation’ literature a whole lot either. But let me tell you what I see when I see them. What I see is the *absence* of that ‘programming’ that I see in the television generation.

    And… forget the rest of it. That one fact gives me hope.

  2. Your post was very timely — I cancelled cable on Saturday, mainly because I could save $600 a year and also the fact that almost everything “I HAVE TO SEE” is either on the internet or available on DVD.

    I have to say though — that our misconceptions (such as families are perfect like the Brady’s or the Cartwrights), that the bluest sky is in Seattle, etc etc. continue even now.

    Not all kids have sex before they exit High School, not all Christians are fanatics, people who are stranded for 30 days on an island are not really stranded, and I doubt that it is possible that someone will appear on your doorstep and offer your family the opportunity to win $500,000. (Though as a youngster I did believe that Hobo Kelly might one day put a present in my washing machine!)

    I do think that TV not only molded us — but melded us as well. Do you remember hurrying to work to discuss certain shows, staying riveted by the tv during the space shuttle disasters, watching the royal wedding? Our lives were shared with others because of what we viewed. Whether it was simplistic or realistic, we lost ourselves in tv land at times during the week and then found ourselves again by discussing what we saw.

    I enjoyed this post, the thoughts it created, the memories — and the understanding that those of us in our 40’s and 50’s do have memories that breed familiarity!! Thanks for taking the time to post.

    Jennifer Wagner

    ps — do you remember when Rosalynd Shays plunged down the elevator shaft!! Now THAT was a watercooler conversation for sure!

  3. Sweet Jebus but I love it when you throw the long blog bomb. Wish I had more time to write about it since, like you it seems, I only watch TV on DVD, I was essentially raised and schooled (in my early years) by television. I definitely believe that TV– in its content and its form– shaped me and my outlook in some fundamental ways, which is one of the reasons I despite it now. But at the same time, I’m not as sure as I used to be that there aren’t some positive effects. No time to say more now, but this topic will surely find a way into my blog at some point.

  4. Interesting post, and interesting responses. I addressed a related topic with this post a while back.

    By the time I had my first experience of TV, I was in high school. Because I was at boarding school, my viewing was strictly controlled. Added to that was the rigorous government censorship in place, meaning that what was screened tended to be pretty inoccuous stuff.

    I’m not sure that TV shaped me to any extent, but I now watch several forensic type programmes (Bones, NCIS and all flavours of CSI) as well as a hilarious topical news quiz called Have I got News for You and an equally hilarious review of current events called Mock the Week.

    I suspect these last two programmes are moulding my teenagers into a greater measure of critical thinking about current events than might otherwise have been the case.

    Other than that, I’ll look for a movie or a good documentary. We’re being treated to a fabulous one at present called the Story of Maths, which is fascinating!

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