Changing the Channel

I am not proud to reveal that my children watch a lot of TV during the summer. Oh, I make them turn it off at some point, and we have a mostly TV free day, but early in the morning, and in the evening, it’s a Cartoon Network-Disney XD marathon in my living room. It does, however, give me the chance to compare the TV watching of my childhood with the experience my kids have.

I monitor what my kids watch fairly stringently. I look things up on and have vetoed a couple of shows on the grounds that they’re inappropriate. I feel like a troll policing them so rigorously but there’s so much more television now. We have satellite, and for example you could, if you were so inclined, watch SpongeBob from dawn until dusk. There’s an East coast and a West coast feed of Nickelodeon, which means that SpongeBob starts at 6 a.m. ET, and goes off at 9 a.m. ET. At 9 ET, the West coast feed starts up and runs for three hours. When the West coast morning feed ends, the East coast afternoon feed starts up. Seriously—All. Fucking. Day. I actually put my foot down and flat out banned that irritating little anthropomorphic rectangle of cellulose.
I despise this asshole
I don’t recall my parents ever telling me I couldn’t watch something, or even telling me I had to turn the TV off. I don’t know if my parents really paid any attention to what I watched. But then, a lot of what I watched was what they watched, because there was one of me and two of them, and we only had one TV set. We got a portable in the mid-70s, and I remember watching a few shows in my room, or sitting on a stool in the kitchen. That was when a portable TV was actually portable. Flat screen TVs may give you a better picture (because thank god—I would hate to think my kids were watching “Jessie” in anything less than perfect lifelike resolution and unadulterated crystalline definition) but you can’t take them to your bedroom and sit on the floor playing Legos while you watch the 1976 Winter Olympics.


My kids never miss a show, either, because they can set up anything to record at any time of the day or night. It used to be that if you wanted to watch “Donny & Marie” or “Gimme a Break!” you made sure you were home when the show was on. It sounds sad to say we planned our lives around the TV schedule, but to some extent we did. Somehow it doesn’t seem sad to me, because it meant that those shows were special—we weren’t just staring at whatever happened to be in front of our eyes, which is often what my kids appear to be doing. They don’t really care that much about watching “Austin & Ally” or “The Amazing World of Gumball.” They’re just watching it because it happens to be on. They may have picked it, but it was picked from a list of perhaps five other shows. It’s almost like they pick the thing they don’t want to watch least, if that makes any sense (“I don’t want to watch ‘Kickin’ It,’ I don’t want to watch ‘Lab Rats,’ I don’t want to watch ‘Adventuretime’…guess I’ll watch ‘The Regular Show’ since there’s nothing else on.” If there’s nothing you really want to watch just turn off the fucking TV).

They also never miss any part of a show. Thanks to the pause button, they can stop a show at any point, and start it back up where they left off. Never will they know the stress of trying to hurry up and pee because there’s someone yelling from the room with the TV, “The show’s back! Hurry up!” I’m convinced that the people who scheduled the commercials figured out how long it takes the average person to go to the bathroom, and made it so the commercial break was one 30 second spot short of that window.

With the DVR and fast forward, watching commercials is also a thing of the past. With the possible exception of the Super Bowl, people don’t really seem watch them anymore. When we were kids, commercials even played a role in influencing our vernacular. Who didn’t imitate Clara Peller, saying, “Where’s the beef?” at least once between 1984 and about 1990? Other than shit like Stompeez and Stufeez (and may I say that I don’t know who invented those things, but I hate that person or people with the blinding heat of a thousand fiery suns), a few lame toys, and (oddly) ads for insurance companies, there don't really seem to be that many commercials on the shows my kids watch. Mostly they air promos for upcoming shows on the same network. Or, if it’s Disney XD, a video of the cast members of every single Disney XD show singing “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” which never fails to embed an earworm in my brain that takes days for me to get rid of. So, you know, thanks for that Disney XD.

They’ll never dig the TV guide out of the Sunday paper to see what’s going to be on this week. The TV guide may, in fact, have been the whole reason you got the newspaper on Sunday. That way you knew what the ABC Afterschool Special would be on Wednesday, and when the football game was on. TV guide had the most comically simplistic crossword puzzles in the history of crossword puzzles with clues like “a four letter word for ‘an accessory to hold up pants.’” My kids have never seen a paper TV guide. They know only the onscreen satellite guide that they can access with our remote.

Or you could look in the paper. Notice all the channel listings fit on a single broadsheet page.

They will also never know the pain of not being able to receive a channel. Where we lived there was a channel 20 (which is, of course, on UHF, which is another concept they’ll never understand—a TV set with two channel dials), the transmitter for which was on the other side of a tall high rise building that just happened to be on the corner of our block. The building blocked our reception of channel 20, which of course was the channel that showed cartoons like “Kimba the White Lion” and “Speed Racer” after school. I didn’t realize until I was an adult and bought a couple of “Speed Racer” DVDs for my kids just how astonishingly lame that show was. The closest my kids will come to this is that our satellite package doesn’t include The Game Show Channel or something (not that they care about The Game Show Channel, but if I told them it existed, and we didn’t get it, they would, in the way of children, be outraged at being denied access to it).

My kids won’t have the option to watch a favorite show on a different channel owned by the same network, but then, they probably won’t have the need, either. Sometimes our local station would be showing something else in place of one of our favorite shows. My mom and I were devoted to “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island” every Saturday night (no, we didn’t get out much). Occasionally our local ABC station would be showing something else—I don’t know, a Jerry Lewis telethon or something. In a pinch, we could watch ABC on the Baltimore channel (which, surprisingly we got, even though we couldn’t get channel 20, which was four miles away as the crow flies off of River Road—go figure). So we could watch, but it was a bit unsatisfying. Sure, we got to see this week’s episode with Guest Stars Barbi Benton and Charo, along with Gopher and Isaac Your Bartender, but it always looked as though there was an unlikely blizzard on the Mexican Riviera because of all the static. Channels don’t preempt regular programing as much as they did back in the day.

Of course, TV is now 24/7 and there are 984 channels. There’s no such thing as “not on the air” which means that the national anthem playing at 2 a.m., or turning on the TV on Sunday morning and seeing a test pattern don’t ever happen. If my kids wanted to get up at 4 a.m. and watch SpongeBob, they could. Which again to me seems to take some of the “specialness” away from TV. My generation was the one for which TV became a given, but for my kids’ generation, it’s the one for which it will become completely taken for granted, just another dementedly jabbering block of plastic that takes up space in our homes.

I guess where I’m going with this is that I think it’s kind of sad that TV has no magic for my kids. They can watch whatever, whenever. As a perfect example, take “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in my house. When I was a kid, once a year Dolley Madison (or possibly Mounds and Almond Joy) would sponsor its airing on CBS, and my dad and I would watch it religiously. We checked the TV guide to find out when it would be showing and when it came on, by god we watched. Now we own it on DVD, and if they were allowed (THEY ARE NOT) my kids could watch it any time during the year, and 450 times between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and completely ruin it for themselves by overexposure. This is why I have it hidden where they can’t get at it and only pull it out on Christmas Eve, when we watch it as a family. Once per season, the way God and Charles Schultz intended.


Cassandra said...

I remember "Captain 20" well. And I cried the day they took "Kimba" off the air. Sad, but true.

Tracy said...

Captain 20! I wanted so badly to watch him, but there was a building on Connecticut Ave that was just too tall to allow it. I spent my childhood mourning the absence of Kimba and Speed Racer in my life (I was the poster child for First World problems).

Sarah (est. 1975) said...

We didn't ban Spongebob for a long time. And then... We had to. It was starting to make my kid act like a little asshole. And by little I mean humongous.

Tracy said...

Exactly. They were acting like dicks to each other and to me. Plus I fucking hate that thing's voice. And the plots are SO STUPID. So: banned.

Gigi said...

Yep, yep, I agree with it all. But mostly, I agree with this - "Once per season, the way God and Charles Schultz intended." Best line EVER! And the truest.

Tracy said...

Thanks! Yes, once a year or it would just be ruined through overexposure. And they'd do that. Not intentionally, but still.

Unknown said...

OMG -- this makes me feel so OLD! I remember all of this! For the longest time, we only got one station -- the local PBS station through the university. Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street, Electric Company, and Zoom were the shows we watched. That's why I'm so damn smart ;)

Tracy said...

For a long time that's all I watched was PBS. Do you know that if you go to buy the first X seasons of Sesame Street (not sure how many), it actually has a warning label that the content is not for children? WTF? "I'm An Aardvark" is now considered inappropriate for children under 12???

Little Miss Menopause said...

I haven't heard Barbi Benton's name in forever. What's up with that chick nowadays? This post was really a treat to read and made me yearn for technology to become special again. But "you can't go back home." Thanks for the memories and now the earworm has implanted Herve Villechaize shrieking, "Da Plane, Da Plane!" into my mind. Thanks for that, too! ;-)

Tracy said...

She's no spring chicken anymore, but I haven't heard what she's up to in years, either. Glad you enjoyed it! Sorry about the ear worm. I feel that pain deeply :)

rockygrace said...

Loved this! We had four channels when I was a kid - ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS. Take your pick. I got a fair amount of exercise getting up to change the channel. Maybe that's why I still can't sit still when I'm watching TV.

Tracy said...

Thanks! We had five, actually--NBC, ABC, CBS, and PBS, but also Metromedia, which became the Fox network. Metromedia was never anything like Fox. In fact, before I was born, my dad was a reporter for Metromedia, covering Capitol Hill. I don't actually think having the TV remote saves us anything in expended energy. Instead of getting up to change the channel 17 times an hour, I spend 20 minutes hunting under every piece of furniture in a three room radius of the TV set looking for the goddamned remote! :)

Opticynicism said...

I only got into the TV when I was allowed as a kid and I blame that on my dad. It was the "cool technology" thing in the house and he was the "only one who knew how to work it right" so we weren't allowed to touch it for a while so we mostly got exposed to what he liked. I got exposed to a lot of "All In The Family" because Archie Bunker was a complete and total asshole and clearly someone my father could relate to.

Now Netflix has ruined me. They give me all the seasons of a show I have missed out on . . . except for the LAST season just to drive me mad (Dexter and Breaking Bad did this for a while but they finally caught up) or they give me a new show that I get totally addicted to and then they give me an entire season at once, which I promptly marathon watch over a weekend and then nothing for 9 months (Orange is the New Black).

I haven't scheduled myself to sit down to watch a show in I don't know how long, but Sons of Anarchy will have me firmly planted on the couch at 10pm next Tuesday. (Patience is not a virtue for me, it is something I can't pick up at WalMart and therefore, I don't have any.)

I can't remember where I put my glasses this morning but I can remember all the words to the theme songs . . . Happy Days, The Love Boat, Laverne and Shirley.

And a couple weeks ago when Robin Williams passed away, my first thought was "Mork is DEAD"?!

Tracy said...

We watched AITF too. I still love that show and will watch it on something like Hulu when I have time (which is almost never).

We have Amazon Prime (Netflix and I had an ugly breakup around the time of that price increase) and I'm just as bad. I think I've watched Seasons 1-4 of Downton Abbey five times each (and am going in for round five shortly). However, we do have the satellite (because god forbid my children miss a new episode of "Girl Meets World" right? Can you imagine? I mean, I don't want CPS all up in my grill) so I get to see new seasons of stuff that's on those channels, if I'm so inclined. Unfortunately, with four kids, I'm inclined way more often than I actually have time :p

SammichesPsychMeds said...

Totally agree with the magic being gone for my kids. Netflix, DVDs, streaming videos -- they an watch whatever they want whenever. No concept of live TV or having to watch commercials or waiting until a certain day and time to catch a show. They're missing out, man. Missing out big time. (Also, I hate Sponge Bob.)

Tracy said...

Yep, no anticipation at all. I wish I could just get rid of all the viewing devices in our house, but I'd be cutting off my nose to spite my face if I did. :p I DO like to watch a few things now and then myself.

Unknown said...

I feel the same damn way. About all of it.

"Just another dementedly jabbering block of plastic that takes up space in our homes." I beg your pardon but my kids are not plastic! (Joking). I wrote about my disgust for the television a long time ago, & if I could I'd throw it out, but my husband would divorce me. So I keep it & pray my kids turn out alright.

It is so different (& much harder) to parent today. Our parents didn't have to monitor us b/c for 1, they didn't give a shit and for 2, children's shows were actually appropriate for children. Parents didn't have to worry over Love Boat or Fantasy Island. (How the hell do you know the name of the old lady in the Where's the Beef commercial btw?!?! ) Today after the age of 8 & they age out of public television, there is nothing appropriate on for kids so they blindly watch whatever garbage is being served up purportedly for kids. I actually gave in to the irritating Sponge b/c he was the best of the lot.

I remember when the multi-colored "special" sign used to spin around on the TV screen & we got so excited. B/c it actually was special. I feel like a lot of special things are ruined today. I can't tell if it's me being curmudgeony or romaticizing the past, but to me things seem worse. And, incidentally, kids seem worse. They don't seem to get excited about anything or want to do anything - but why should they when they have so much & have 20 million channels at their fingertips?

But I also think maybe our parents thought the same things about us. Who knows? Maybe the kids do find certain things special, but they don't articulate that so we'll never know. Maybe they'll have fond memories of silly stuff from their childhood like we do only a bit different?

Here's what I had to say:

Tracy said...

Totally with you that we would ditch TV so fast if it wouldn't mean a visit to the divorce lawyers.

I will say that when we can get out of our satellite contract, we will go to all on-demand. At least then they have to think of something to watch, not just turn it on and go blank.

Our kids take TV for granted the way we take radio for granted. My dad used to tell stories about listening to the radio, and how it was very special for them. To us radio just is. That's how our kids view TV. It's not special, it's just something that's always there. Now an iPad, or Kindle or something--that's special. Not everyone has those. Our grandchildren are going to be like, "Yeah, Kindle, whatever." They'll be issued to them at school and stuff.

You're right about the programming. Once they get past Peppa Pig and Caillou, it goes right to stuff for tweens. One of my 9 year olds made some comment about "breaking up by text message." I know it was on some Disney Channel show, and he heard it.

Kids don't get excited about stuff the same way, it doesn't seem. Wait, let me amend that--it depends on what it is. I will say that it gratifies me that my kids bring me their e-readers and ask me to pre-purchase those Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. But when it comes to special programming, yeah, no such thing.

As for knowing Clara Peller's name, even if I hadn't remembered it (which, for some weird reason I did--I have a trivia brain, I can't tell you where my car keys are, but I can tell you who played random characters on TV shows from 30 years ago), I could always have Googled it :)

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