A furlough from TV

The weekend was a great opportunity to live like an estimated 2.7 million people who went without.

Less than 1 percent of the U.S. population watched blank TV screens, or nothing at all when the media industry converted from analog to digital. The rationale is simple: If you don’t already have cable or satellite and if you failed to acquire a converter box, your TV set went blank.

I joined the TV furlough for one day, but the sacrifice was far different from simply being out of town and away from the idiot box. In my case, the penance was self-imposed and deliberate.

Let me explain:

My dad must have read “Babbitt,” a novel by Sinclair Lewis, set in the ‘20s, about a man who simply had to have every new product. Dad accordingly decided he could out-Babbitt all the others in his block. Thus, whatever affordable item he espied at Ilfeld Hardware in Las Vegas, he bought.

We then were among the first on our side of town to buy a TV set. And when we did get one, we’d see neighbor kids sitting on our wall next to the sidewalk, watching whatever we were. Watching but not hearing.

Dad justified the purchase in getting a companion for his record player which took highly breakable 78 RPM disks and had a built-in AM radio with push buttons. Dad once said, “With my record player, I can close my eyes and listen to the music. With TV, you have to watch to enjoy it.”

When TV came to town, the channel choices were no great shakes. Some of the stations signed off at 10 p.m. If you enjoyed live kiddie programs, you had it made. Much on TV was live. Newscasts usually consisted solely of George Morrison or Bob McCoy simply reading the news. It lacked remote coverage, although occasionally the newscaster held a still photo, in show-and-tell fashion.

TV had nothing flashy, none of those weird sound effects or super-slo-mo sequences common today. As TV became more affordable, one could see larger and larger rooftop antennas making the statement, “This house has TV.” It became a status symbol.

My first glance at TV was around 1954, in a little room, where Hilton Motors and later Fred’s Lumber once were located, on the 400 block of Grand. Possibly the town’s only TV set was set up in the waiting room, and people gathered to watch George Gobel, Jimmy Durante and others, in glorious black-and-white.

Drive through parts of Las Vegas today and you’ll get the impression that many people still have TV delivered via an external aerial. Not so. It’s just too much trouble to remove the antenna once cable or satellite TV gets installed.

One of several electronic innovations, Tivo, enables people to choose — weeks in advance — programs to be recorded. So, if the gang can’t get together at 4:15 on Sunday to watch the Super Bowl, no big deal; put it on Tivo and watch it later. Just be sure not to be around anyone who’ll give you the results of the game, in the same way that it’s always my luck to sit directly behind some smarty-pants kid who’s seen the flick 30 times and tells his parents, along with the rest of the Western world, what’s about to happen.

Back to the penance:

For a day, I simply unhooked our main TV set, left the unit on, flipped through dozens of channels, and on precious few, could discern faint images.

Well hey, that’s almost as good as we had it back in the Dark Ages. True, now there’s instant replay, zoom and a host of features on TV sets. Back then, we took potluck.

So how did my self-imposed media hiatus go? Glad you asked. It went well. And during the experiment I told my grandson, “When I was your age, we had to walk to the TV set to change the channel.”

About that time Arthur Roland showed me an absolutely clear, color, four-inch-square full-length movie he’d placed on his iPod. The contrast between a huge box with a tiny screen and the Visa card-sized iPod is astounding.

The sans-TV day took me away from some of the mindless drivel that permeates TV, such as the cliche-ridden stand-uppers who position themselves in front of St. Aloysius’ School live at 10 p.m. to announce, “I’m in front of the very spot where a student was suspended early this morning for chewing gum.”

Or the pontificating reporter uttering something like “And as we all know, bigger isn’t necessarily better,” or “It’s too soon to take a wait-and-see attitude.”

And I was spared even accidentally catching a glimpse of “Two and a Half Men,” whose hormonally crazed, sex-obsessed teenager needs a serious paddling. Nevertheless, the day without TV went OK, as far as I can tell. It’s hard to remember which blank channels I flipped through, as I fell asleep during one of the surfings.

Like my dad, whose narcolepsy kicked in as soon as the late movie began, I also acquired that skill.

I awoke to the soft purr of my wife’s voice, as she said, “You know, Snooze Monkey, you’re very particular about the blank TV programs you sleep through.”

One thought on “A furlough from TV

  1. Ben Moffett

    Great column, Art. I’ve been thinking about taking down my antenna. I might decorate it instead. We didn’t have a TV until I was a junior in high school (1956), and I saw my first color TV as a police reporter in the early to mid 60s. I was talking to the detectives at the Albuquerque Police Department and they had confiscated one. They turned in on for me. “I guess there are no color shows on today,” one detective observed. “Well, this looks like color to me,” I replied, noting some tints on the screen. “Nope, not color,” the dick said. Unlike the Lewis character and your dad, I was always thrifty and held out against buying anything new. I didn’t have a color TV until 1980ish.

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