Thursday, April 9, 2015
Remembrance of Things Past, Part II
Last week I shared my memories of movie theaters, those places with the big screens and soda-sticky floors that used to be the only place you could see a film. This week we’re going to talk about TV and how much has changed in my 50-odd years of addiction to the boob tube.
However, I will NOT be comparing the quality of shows then and shows now. There’s no point. Every decade has their classics, their so-sos, their Oh-Christ-change-the-channel-nows and their how-the-hell-did-this-shit-get-on-the-airs. Something considered top-notch in the early days may be unwatchable now. Some shows have been made all but unwatchable by—well, we’ll be getting to that.
First, a good thing: we have a ton of channels now, and a lot more choices. When I began watching TV, back in my long-ago childhood, we had three, count ‘em, three, networks: ABC, NBC and CBS. Four if you counted PBS, which didn’t have commercials but only ran boring, artsy stuff (and Monty Python and Dr. Who, but those came later).
If you were really lucky, your rooftop antenna or indoor rabbit ears could pull in the UHF stations that ran old shows from the ‘50s. I was extremely fortunate in that we could get Channel 17 out of Philly, which ran all those Japanese imports like Astro Boy, Marine Boy, Prince Planet, and the epitome of anime, Speed Racer. These cartoons introduced me to camera angles and perspective, things you didn’t get from Hanna-Barbera. My favorite was Kimba the White Lion, but that was on a more distant station and I could only get it if atmospheric conditions cooperated. UHF came in handy when Star Trek went into syndication. UHF was the Netflix of the pre-cable era.
And get this: it was free. No paying to watch TV. You could watch whatever your antenna could pluck out of the airwaves. If you lived in an area with poor reception, well, I hope you had a lot of books in the house. Cable TV solved that problem, but you had to pay for it. Free TV has pretty much gone the way of the second-run movie houses mentioned in my last installment. Unless you have Internet. Then you can stream all those shows from the ‘50s, just without the rolling picture and the snow.
I mentioned all the channels and choices as a good thing. Well, maybe. Keep Sturgeon’s Law in mind: ninety percent of everything is crap. So all but ten percent of everything you watch is going to fall into the crap category. Don’t blame me. It’s the law.
TV shows used to have longer seasons. New shows started in September and ran until at least June. Today, God only knows. There’s no “fall season” or even “mid-season replacements” any more. Shows debut whenever. This year, Supernatural started in October, took a break through most of December and January, and will wrap up around mid-May. And that’s with a full season. For some shows, a “full season” is like six episodes. I’ve seen shows that have been on for a month announce their “season finale.” Ha? I’m still learning the names of the characters. Luckily channels like Bravo run the same episode four or five times a week, so you can catch up before it’s yanked.
Here’s a fun game: get a DVD of a series from the ‘60s and time the episodes. A half-hour show used to run 22 minutes. Hour shows ran about 53. That’s with an opening and a closing theme. Your average “hour-long” show now runs about 45 minutes, and may or may not have an opening theme song. Did you know Supernatural has a closing theme? I didn’t until I watched it on DVD.
Used to be you could actually read the closing credits, even though a lot of times a voiceover guy came on to tout upcoming shows. Today closing credits flash by at Warp Factor 10, sometimes in microscopic type, while the rest of the screen is taken up with promos. I’m one of those people who actually likes to read the credits. I want to know who played the Guy Behind The Counter on that cop show. I want to know who did the voice of the Joker in the Batman cartoons (it was Mark Hamill, in case you were wondering too).
This is especially true of movies on TV. Want to know who played who? Well, hope you brought your magnifying glass, because there it is, whizzing by in that 3 inch x 3 inch box in the corner of the screen, while the station pimps its Action News team. You might as well watch it on DVD. It’s the only way you’ll ever see closing credits.
And where has all this extra time gone in today’s shorter TV shows? Why, to commercials, of course. Folks have to pay the bills somehow. Ever notice how there are more and longer commercial breaks in the second half of the show than in the first? That’s because by the halfway point, you’re invested in the story. First they suck you in, then they slam you with ads. And don’t even think about changing the channel. I’ve tried that. I’ve discovered that, on average, three out of four channels I flip to at random will be on commercial break at the same time. More than once I’ve clicked my way up the dial and got seven out of ten stations running commercials at once. And the breaks go for four-five minutes now. At least we have sufficient time to hit the toilet.
So what does this mean for the older shows taking up air space on channels like TV Land and those other inheritors of the UHF mantle? Syndicated shows have always gotten trimmed to fit more commercials in, even back in the day. From snippets of dialogue to entire scenes, a few extra minutes of show get excised to make room for another car ad. Thanks to the digital age, some channels have instituted an even more insidious practice: they speed up the show so it runs faster in the allotted time, thus freeing up a few more seconds for even more commercials. I saw this happen recently on a Miami Vice rerun. Not only did the theme song sound like the Chipmunks performed it, but there was Tubbs chasing down a perp at Olympic sprint speeds. He looked like the Flash. To top it off, they chopped off the end of a scene. All so they can sell me coffee. I don’t even drink coffee.
This is why I keep a bunch of magazines near the couch, so I’ll have something to look at while I’m waiting for the show to come back on. Usually, though, I just switch off the set and go read a book. Books don’t break for five minutes to bombard you with commercials. Yet. The day that happens … I dunno. I might have to go to a park and stare at the trees. Or teach myself how to draw and make my own comic strips. Sometimes you just gotta entertain yourself. For the time being, at least, that’s still free.
And now, this week's car decal. Happy viewing!