September 1978: As a freshman at the Ohio State University, I am excited to learn that one of the benefits of living in Columbus is access to cable television. Back home in North Baltimore, we are still using antennas to capture our four television stations. Since I’ve watched cable television at my cousins’ home in Findlay, I know that cablevision means more selection and clearer pictures. I feel like I’ve just entered the future.
June 2013: I’m having trouble sleeping tonight so I flip on the television and begin to channel surf. Our remote control has nearly 30 buttons on it. Each channel has a four digit number. We can restart programs that we joined midway or record them for later viewing. Even at 4 a.m., there are endless options for viewing: news, sports, nature, documentaries, and movies. I begin to wonder if access to so much television is a blessing or a curse. Tonight, navigating the 30 button remote and the unending list of channels seems too complicated for an insomniac so I turn the television off. My mind begins to wander back to the simpler days of only four television channels. Soon my mind had recaptured my happiest television memories.
Sunday night, late 1960s: I’ve had my bath and am snuggled into my pajamas. My brother and I are sitting on the floor in front of our color television awaiting our favorite show of the week: “The Wonderful World of Disney.” This program has many different formats. It might be a show about history, animation, adventure, nature, or even Disneyland. Some of the programs are too long for one week and might span up to three consecutive weeks. We wonder what tonight’s format will be. Among our favorite episodes are “The Ugly Dachshund,” “The Yellowstone Cubs,” and “Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar.”
Monday morning, late 1960s: There is great energy in front of Powell School as we await the morning bell. One classmate shouts, “Did you see that show about Disneyland last night? I want to go to California!” We all discuss the magical park that we saw on last night’s “The Wonderful World of Disney.” One boy said there are submarines there. Another says there is a magical mountain. When the bell rings, we are still discussing the life-like Pirates of the Caribbean.
Television brought us together. Even though each family watched television in its own home during the 1960s, the limited number of channels made television a community event. We often watched the same programming and we loved to talk about it.
Personally, I loved the exotic National Geographic specials that CBS aired four times per year. They had titles like “Miss Goodall in Africa,” “Dr. Leakey and the Dawn of Man,” or “Man of the Serengheti.” I can still vividly remember one called “Amazon” where a pack of piranhas devoured a capybara. This was discussed at length on the North Baltimore Elementary School playground the next day.
Another program from the same genre that generated great enthusiasm was the “Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau.” Who could forget Jacques Cousteau with his consummate French accent wearing his fishing sweater and red knit cap? This thrilling program, narrated by Rod Serling, aired between 1968-1974 and seemed equal parts science and adventure. It was guaranteed that lunch period on the following day would focus on discovering shipwrecks, the most deadly sharks, or dragons of the Galapagos!
Blessing or a curse? I do appreciate the smorgasbord of television viewing options available to us today. While I watch an episode of “HouseHunters International,” my husband can watch fishing in the Keys. On the other hand, the wide selection has sacrificed the sense of community and follow-up discussion that once was generated by television. With today’s access to hundreds of channels, there are almost no programs that many people watch: maybe the Super Bowl or more likely, news coverage of a large disaster like September 11, the Boston Bombing, or a natural disaster.
In its infancy, television was a medium that brought us together and gave us reasons to discuss a common topic on playgrounds, around water coolers, and over backyard fences. Today, television is just another medium that segregates us into highly-specific interest areas. I really do miss our old chats about last night’s television show.