As I mentioned back during the A to Z Challenge in April, when we were growing up, television was magic. Fifty years ago, your town might have had three TV stations, and if there wasn’t anything watching on any of them, you turned the set off and did something else, like read a book, talk to your family, play solitaire, clean the house, or go to bed. Now, your cable or satellite provider delivers hundreds of channels to your house and you spend your time flipping through each of them, certain that, with all those channels, there must be something worth watching.
(Commentary from Bruce Springsteen on the predicament)
Anyway, I sat down the other night and came up with a list of ten things you no longer see on television. And here they are:
- Saturday Morning Cartoons: There might be some cartoon shows that air on Saturday morning, but they’re required now to have some sort of educational or informational value. At one time the Saturday morning cartoons were little more than filler in between the commercials for sugary cereal and expensive toys. I mean, Total Television, the studio that gave us Underdog and Tennessee Tuxedo, was owned by General Mills, makers of Kix, Trix, and Cocoa Puffs, essentially the same cereal with different flavor coatings on each. Parents decided that they needed to protect us from that sort of crass commercialism, commercialism that we kids all knew was there, anyway. Today, all of the good (i.e. non-educational) cartoons are on Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and the Disney Channel.
- Afternoon Kids’ Shows: Along with the decline in Saturday morning cartoon shows came a decline of the afternoon kids’ shows. The idea was pretty much the same: get kids to pester their parents for sugary cereals and snacks and expensive toys, and to take them to expensive amusement parks and movies. The difference was that these shows were locally produced, with one of the station’s announcers dressed up like a clown or a sea captain providing the entertainment between the cartoons and commercials. Local TV stations rarely play cartoons anymore (heck, most “local TV stations” are programmed and operated from a central location), having abandoned kids’ TV for shows that feature people yelling at each other and shows that replace the American system of jurisprudence with courtrooms presided over by sarcastic individuals in judicial robes.
- Commercials longer than 30 seconds: I’m talking about commercials for products and services that were a minute or more. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Here are a couple of examples of what I mean:
- Half-hour dramas: The only TV shows that are thirty minutes long anymore are sitcoms. (And when I say thirty minutes long, I mean twenty-two minutes long, with room for eight minutes of commercials.) Maybe that isn’t long enough to develop an effective plot for a drama. Well, it might be, but then we wouldn’t have enough time to inject all kinds of character backstory into the show.
- Game Shows: I realize that there are still a few of them on TV: CBS has The Price Is Right and Let’s Make A Deal, and a there are a few in syndication (Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune, Family Feud, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire), but it wasn’t long ago that the networks ran game shows most of the morning and part of the afternoon.
- Soap Operas: When the networks weren’t airing game shows during the day, they were airing soap operas. So many of them, many of which started back in the days of radio, have bitten the dust in the last few years. There are still a couple (General Hospital, The Young and The Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful), but a little bit of history is dying.
- Variety Shows: These were the greatest. At one time there was at least one variety show every night. Red Skelton, Carol Burnett, Dean Martin, Flip Wilson, Bill Cosby, the Smothers Brothers, and Glen Campbell all had variety shows at one time or anotherSome music, some sketch comedy, and a big production number, all featuring the star, the ensemble cast, and the special guest star(s) of the night. All gone now.
- Sign-Ons and Sign-Offs: It’s hard to remember sometimes that TV stations would leave the air during the overnight hours, and return to the airwaves the next morning. Sometimes afternoon. At both ends of the broadcast day, they would have a sermonette by a local clergyman, maybe a news recap, a bunch of public service announcements, they’d display the Seal of Good Practice of the National Association of Broadcasters, give technical information about the station, and play “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Then the station either showed a test pattern or shut the transmitter off. It was like they were saying, “TV’s over for tonight. Go to bed.” Here is a sample signoff sequence from WCBS-TV in New York, circa 1979.
Test Patterns: For a while after a station signed off at night, and for a while before it signed on in the morning, a station would display a test pattern, normally with a steady 400 Hz tone, although they might play music from an affiliated radio station. In the eaarly days of television, when TV sets were not as reliable as they are today, people would use the test pattern to adjust the picture on their set, and when color TV became the norm, the hue and tint of the colors. Now, you just see them occasionally.
Maybe the best-known test pattern is the Indian-head test pattern.
Static: When the station shut down its transmitter and was no longer broadcasting, the “ants” took over. That’s what it looked like, anyway. The minute the station shut off the transmitter, the picture disappeared and you were treated to white noise, both aural and visual. What you saw and heard was static, the random electromagnetic signals that occupied the channel. If you had a channel that was unoccupied, you’d see the same thing. With a powerful enough antenna and a strong signal from a station somewhere else, you might get a fuzzy picture and distorted sound from their broadcast. We could sometimes receive signals from Rockford and Kenosha at home in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Looking for broadcasts from other cities (radio or TV) was called DX’ing, and it was a fun hobby back in the day.
You might ask, “So, why don’t we see these things today?” Here are some thoughts on that:
- Money. The cost of running a game show or a soap opera in the afternoon costs a lot more than a show like The View or Judge Judy. We live in a world where TV stations are on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Programming for those 24 hours is an expensive proposition, so corners must be cut wherever possible. Those infomercials that run all night on some TV stations help pay the bills.
- Technological advances. One reason TV stations shut down for a few hours every night was to give the transmitter and other equipment a rest. Equipment today is nowhere near as expensive to run and can be run continuously without concern about breakdowns. New receivers are much more reliable than the TV sets that were available twenty years ago: they don’t need to be adjusted like the older equipment and can handle issues such as vacant channels. Digital television has improved the quality of reception as well.
- Specialization. The large assortment of channels available with cable or satellite TV means that channels can specialize. We now have channels devoted to cartoons (Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Boomerang, etc.), movies (AMC, Turner Classic Movies, the Encore channels, etc.), classic TV (MeTV, Antenna TV, etc.) and other types of programming. A single channel need not satisfy all of the viewing needs of its viewers.
- Viewing alternatives. Time was that, if you weren’t sitting in front of your TV when your show was on, you missed it, and had to hope that you caught a rerun of it at some other time. Now, you can buy an entire season of the show and watch it all over a weekend. Some cable networks specialize in rerunning shows that were on network TV as little as a few months before. The Big Bang Theory, NCIS, Bones, Castle, CSI (Las Vegas, Miami, and New York), the Law and Order franchise, and countless others are replayed countless times on the cable networks and some local stations. And there’s always the time shifting options such as TiVo and DVR, plus services like Netflix and Hulu.
- Sophistication. Why are there no longer half-hour dramas, game shows, and soap operas? No one watches them anymore.
So, that’s your Thursday Ten for July 3, 2014.
What other types of programming are no longer on TV? Do you miss any of the things that aren’t there anymore?