By Paul Steffan
Sometime in the summer of 1976 our family TV experience changed forever. International Cable was finally available on our street and we eagerly signed up, hungry for ESPN and Buffalo Sabres games. I’ll never forget the “semi” remote controller, a white box about the size of an iPad Mini that had about 20 feet of cord that connected to the box at the TV. Changing channels became a simple turn of the dial at the bottom of the remote. The genie was out of the bottle.
Before International Cable, we had channels 2, 4, 7, 17, 29 and whatever we could grab from Canada through the antenna spinning on the roof. What the new channel lineup consisted of other than ESPN and channel 10, which carried Sabres games, I can’t remember. HBO was available but it ran “R” rated movies – not in our house. When my Uncle Paul the priest came home from New York and saw our new toy he couldn’t believe it came with commercials: “You’re paying for TV and still have to watch commercials?”
Looking back, with our hundreds of viewing options and channels satisfying every passion, curiosity and obsession, I wonder if we’re better off now or back in the 2, 4 and 7 days.
Sure, choice was limited then, but there was something about the whole family, let alone the whole community, watching “All in the Family” or “60 Minutes.” There was a commonality and a sense of belonging in this scarcity of viewing options.
Saturday Night was “Love Boat,” followed by “Fantasy Island.” Phrases like “The plane” or “I’m a little bit country” or Jimmy Walker’s “Dy-No-Mite” became touchstones that everyone recognized.
Archie Bunker alone was a course in race relations, something we could use today. “Dingbat,” “Meathead,” “dumb p-----” (I dare not even write it down) would lead to hours-long discussions in our house as we kids instructed our father about what could and couldn’t be said. Where else in Tonawanda were you going to learn this stuff in 1977?
Contrast that to today. The menu for today’s shows is so varied and eclectic that we don’t even read it, we just channel through the hundreds of shows hoping to find one that looks right, inevitably missing half the show while finding it.
The unfortunate result is the loss of commonality we had across ethnic, racial and social lines.
Today there is so much specificity to the programming that there is no appeal across demographic labels. The result is less understanding.
“Soul Train” introduced integration disguised as soul music. Country music? Everyone watched “Hee Haw” (BR549 and “Ya’ll come back now, ya hear?”). There was a buzz that we all felt when “Roots” debuted in 1977. Enduring the Blizzard of ’77 under blankets as we watched, that miniseries was the talk of the town, the schools, churches and families.
Today when we try to decipher the channel guide, we are lost. Maybe that’s why everyone is looking at their phones so much – we’re just trying to figure it all out. Unfortunately our phones only connect us with like-minded friends that we are eager to un-friend at the drop of a dissenting post. Yesterday we looked for a sense of belonging to a group of boomers.
Today the yearning is for a “look at me” individuality. Be different. Don’t watch TV, stream your own programming with Amazon or Hulu. If you’re thinking jungles or hoops, then like me, you might wonder if all this communication has left us looking for someone to talk to.