Monday, January 12, 2009

December 2007: TV Land

The Old Days: I am thinking about television and the evolution thereof. As I was growing up, I was taught that Edison invented the light bulb and the phonograph, Henry Ford invented the car, and the Wright brothers invented the airplane. I thought the television to be every bit as significant and magnificent but when I asked no one could tell me who invented it. How odd. But it was my first exposure to corporate product development. RCA had a large role in the late stage development and commercialization. (I later came to learn that Henry Ford did not invent the automobile but actually the assembly line that made autos economically and quickly.)

I remember not having a TV set in the house. I remember when my father brought one home. I believe I was in kindergarten. It was a monstrosity of a box with an incredibly small screen. It was more like an oscilloscope than a TV. It was the size of a large orange crate with like a ten inch screen.

That TV and even the one that replaced it a few years later needed constant attention. It was before the days of transistors and “solid state” electronics as they used to call it. The TVs were full of vacuum tubes that were always burning out. My dad would open the back of the set and pulled the tubes that looked suspect, had black spots on them. We would go to the local drug or hardware stores. They both had tube testers in which you would plug in the suspect tubes and hit a test button; the machine would tell you if the tube was good or bad. We would buy a new tube and go back and try to fire up the TV. It often seemed to require more than one trip to get the TV operational again. What the mean time between failures? It seemed like it was 45-60 days but that is pure SWAG at this point.

Tubes were relatively easy to test and replace. It was something we could do ourselves. Anything else required the need of a TV repairman or taking it to the TV repair shop. That was usually a horrible and costly experience in terms of waiting for the repairman, being price gouged, and usually not having ones TV for several days. Back then, this was a major hardship as most of the households in our socio-economic class had just one TV in the house.

I often chuckle when I consider that since 1990 we have had more TVs in our house than people. Many folks have TVs in the main living or family room, the kitchen, the bedrooms, and recreation rooms or dens. Back then in the incessant TV repair days, it would have been considered decadent and excessive to have TVs in the kitchen and bedrooms. Now it is simply commonplace.

Beyond the repairs, the TVs needed constant fiddling when they were working properly. We were constantly adjusting the horizontal and vertical holds, dialing the fine tuning, and, of course, playing with the antennae. You could be watching something in glorious black and white, no problems, and then, all of a sudden, the picture would go wacky. Dad or I were up in a jiffy playing with the dials to bring the picture back. Most of the time, this was easily done. Other times, we did the best we could and ended up watching with random flickers or even ghost images.

What an improvement today’s TVs are. The solid state electronic tuning self adjusts and cable makes the signal digital and quite stable. Almost nothing ever goes wrong with the TVs either. When something does, it is often easier to simply replace them rather then repair them.
Innovations: There have been innovations to the television over the years. Certainly, the advent of color was huge. Certainly, the recent development of large flat screens and HD is quite impressive. Is there any other way to watch football these days? Even surround sound has given us the term Home Theater. Yet, the most important developments from my perspective are the remote control and cable/dish TV.

There were remotes as far back as the early 1960s. They were electromechanical as they actually, physically turned the channel knob by sending a radio beam to TV. They were expensive and I am guessing because they never really caught on, they were not too reliable.

In childhood, I had a friend whose father was alcoholic, domineering, and oddly kind of endearing. He did not have a remote control, yet he never changed the channel himself. He would bellow for his son to come and change it. In the summer, his voice could be heard outside while his son was playing baseball with the neighborhood kids. It was pretty funny and his habit became something of legend.

Remote controls became commonplace when TVs went solid state. Instead of being electromechanical devices, they were pure electronic. The first remotes made noise because the knob was physically turned. The electronic innovation made it more silent, instant, and much more effective.

The remote allowed men to channel surf. Women rarely seem to do this. The comedian Jerry Seinfeld summed it up best when he said, “men don’t care what is on TV, they only care what else is on TV.” This might be the truest maxim ever uttered by a comedian. Channel surfing is the art of watching what else is on TV. It is the constant search for a show that probably doesn’t exist. It speaks to the short attention span of the surfer and is totally irritating to others watching the same TV but not holding the remote control or “clicker.” Channel surfing is the reason most households have more TVs then people.

My father was one of the pioneering channel surfers. It began in the era where there was still only one TV in the house. It was pre-cable. With both UHF and VHF stations, there were probably 10-12 channels to watch. This first remote did not have a key pad meaning that one could not dial in any channel at any time. One could only move one channel up or down at a time. It was a crude instrument.

Dad quickly became a master of this new sport of channel surfing. We would all be watching something and then, we would be watching something else. But it wasn’t abrupt or noticeable, it was quite subtle. He kept the remote at his side; you didn’t know he had it in his hand. He would fire from the hip to maintain the stealth profile. His true genius and great innovation was when he changed the channel. He always used the blank second between TV show and commercial, or a similar blank transition within a particular show or movie. It was silent and virtually undetectable. As my mother and sisters were not expecting surfing of this caliber in these early days of the modern remote control, it would take up to five minutes before they realized they weren’t watching the Errol Flynn movie any more. They would start questioning, “hey what happened to the movie, who changed the channel.” My dad would sit there stoic and act unaware. I could detect a wry smile however. It was pretty hilarious back then. Nowadays, everyone knows and expects men to channel surf. It is not as big a deal today. If anyone really just wants to watch one show, they simply move on to another television.

I do believe that the cable folks put soft porn on late night TV basically as a speed bump to the male channel surfing population.

The other great innovation is that of cable and dish TV. With cable, we have gone from the original 3 or 4 channels to 300-400 channels. There are channels catering to every whim and need. There are a dozen news channels, another half a dozen dedicated to financial news, there are nature, science, history, and shopping channels. There are dozens of movie channels: old movie, new movie, suspense movie, mystery movie, and comedy movie channels. There are channels for local weather, heck there are 2-3 channels just dedicated to weather. One can watch local school pageants and sporting events on the public access station. In DC, there is even a station that broadcasts the departure and arrival screens at National and Dulles airports. If all this were not enough, we now have pay per view and free on-demand movies and TV shows. The offerings are limitless.

Oddly, with this virtually limitless, I often find myself saying, “wow there is nothing on.” The same was true when we only had 4 channels. It is amazing that it is also true with 500 channels. There was a New Yorker cartoon a few years ago that captured this. A man is sitting in an easy chair with a clicker in his hand aimed at a TV. He was saying “398, 399, 400… darn there is nothing on.”

This being said here are two recent TV experiences in which there actually was something worth watching with minimal surfing.

December 23rd: Most of the year it is dark when I wake up for work. About 60-70% of the days I am home, I will jump on my stationary bike and pedal for 40 minutes. Because riding a stationary bike can be just about as boring as watching paint dry, I have the bike in front of TV in our basement.

It was not until we moved to Illinois, that I really had the time in the morning to cycle. I guess it is the difference between a 30-40 minute commute versus the 90 minute Connecticut to Mid-Town version.

I liked to bicycle early when I was traveling and living in hotels. They would have a TV in the hotel gym but it was often on the news because that is what the other hotel guests seemed to prefer. In my own house, I had total freedom. So, what to watch?

I tried movies because they were my first and favorite choice, but I could never ever watch a full movie in 40 minutes. That was just frustrating. I then tried to watch sit-com re-runs on Nick-at-Nite, TBS, or other local channels. But, I ride 40 minutes and that was good for one sit-com and a teasing, frustrating, part of another. Plus, I hated all the commercials. The news did not hold my interest very long, unless for the days there were really big breaking stories but thankfully those are few and far between.

Finally, I settled on the History Channel. They have a great series in the morning beginning at 5 am Central Time called, The History Classroom. It runs for 45 minutes and is always very interesting. As my alarm goes off at 5, I am not on the bike until 5:10, so I miss the beginning but enjoy the whole show and always learn something new.

Of course this is a sign of getting old. Old people watch the Discovery and History Channels. I am guilty as charged. But, it is always interesting and the shows are well done using history professors and authors making statements throughout the show. The stories are actually acted out and reasonably well given the limited production budget of the show and the epic nature of much of the subject matter.

I have seen shows on Pearl Harbor, Christopher Columbus, the Pilgrims, Jamestown, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington to name a few. They provide pretty in-depth looks at the events and the people often dispelling misconceptions that are quite common.

On December 21st, I watched Christmas Unwrapped: The History of Christmas. It was amazing. I had always heard of the pagan roots that Christmas celebrations actually overlay. It had to do with the winter solstice, December 21st, the shortest day and hence longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere where Christmas celebrations really developed and took hold.

There were pagan festivals of light in many cultures to counter-balance the longest night of the year. The Norse celebrated the Yule from December 21st through early January often as long as twelve days (the twelve days of… hmmm). They would burn giant logs, Yule logs, and feast and party until the log was totally burned out.

At this point of winter, they would also slaughter animals so they would not have to feed them through the winter. It was the only time of the year when these Northerners would have fresh meat thus adding to the festive nature of this time of the year. In Germany, they might even bring evergreen boughs and eventually trees into the home to both add color and portend the return of spring.

In Rome, where the weather was more temperate, the winter solstice was more of a harvest celebration called Saturnalia. Saturn was the god of agriculture. It was a hedonistic time that lasted a month where the social order was reversed and peasants were in charge. It is commonly believed that Pope Julius I (337-352), set Christmas as December 25th so as to overlay Saturnalia. No one knew the exact date of the birth of Christ. Easter was the bigger celebration in the early days of the faith.

With the middle ages, Christmas replaced the original pagan holidays but retained many of the pagan rituals. People would attend mass and then participate in Mardi Gras like bacchanalian festival. The poor would go to the homes of the rich where they would be served food and drink. If the rich did not open their doors and serve the poor well they would be pestered with mischief or worse. It sounds a lot like Saturnalia. With the coming of the puritans, England actually suppressed the celebration of Christmas because of the un-Christ like behaviors and pagan roots.

This Puritan view extended to the United States. From 1659-1681, Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone caught celebrating it was fined five schillings. The TV show even reported that for the first 20-30 years of the United States, most people worked on December 25th including Congress. Another interesting fact is that a 1928 Christmas class riot (mischief out of control?) in New York City motivated the city council to establish a police department. Most will not know and be quite surprised that Christmas was not made a federal holiday until June 26, 1870!

Christmas celebrations were transformed in the 1800s in England and the United States. These changes have influenced and shaped how the holiday is celebrated around the world. First off, Washington Irving and Charles Dickens wrote stories, The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon and A Christmas Carol respectively, to show a more sophisticated and honorable way to celebrate Christmas. The focus became on charity, good will, family and specifically children.
Washington Irving even helped set the stage by proclaiming St. Nicholas and his Dutch manifestation, Sinter Klaas, the patron saint of New York in his History of New York. Santa Claus, stockings, and gifts for children became set in concrete with an Episcopal minister, Clement Clarke Moore, penning a poem for his daughters entitled An Account of a visit from St. Nicholas in 1822. The first line of this poem is “Twas the Night before Christmas.” St. Nicholas was depicted as “a right jolly old elf” and had "a miniature sleigh with eight tiny reindeer."

The famed political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, finished the transformation of the goodly St. Nicholas of Patara circa the 300s AD to Santa Claus with his 1881 drawing. Nast also gave us the North Pole, the elves, the workshop and Mrs. Claus.

These changes were accompanied with a simultaneous embracing of the holiday, the idea of gift giving, and Santa Claus by retail establishments. Stores started advertising Christmas specials in the 1820s. At a Philadelphia store in 1841, thousands showed up to view a life-sized model of Santa Claus. Soon live Santas were in the stores. Sometime in the 1890s, the Salvation Army dressed unemployed men as Santa Claus to solicit donations to provide Christmas meals for the needy.

The Christmas tree was introduced to England and shortly thereafter to the US by none other than Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert. He did this in 1846.

With movies and television, the popularization of the holiday and these modern icons has continued to evolve with the Miracle on 34th Street to The Grinch that Stole Christmas to A Christmas Story to Christmas with the Kranks. Every year new movies and songs come out. I can barely keep

December 27th:
It was kind of a sad day. It was a big news day. I awoke to find Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated. Needless to say, I spent the rest of the day surfing in and around CNN. I realized that the former prime minister was exactly my age. The TV was great but after a couple of hours, I got tired of watching the same stock footage and listening to the talking head experts from this university or that Federal Agency. They did not seem any more expert than some of the smart folks who are reading this letter.

A happy and healthy 2008 to one and all.

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