I am officially a member of the first generation of children who had televisions in our lives. I vividly recall my fathering installing our family’s first t.v. in our home. He had purchased the typical version encased in a mahogany cabinet that he proudly set at one end of the room near a plug. My mother found two comfortable chairs for her and my father and I lay down on the floor on top of a soft rug. It was an amazing moment when the grainy black and white picture came into focus and we were able to both see and hear the sounds of entertainment in the privacy of our living room. Before that moment radio had been our source of music, comedies and mysteries that required us to imagine how the characters and performers looked. Now we suddenly had the thrill of using two of our senses at once and it was delightful.
Back then the hours and variety of broadcasting were limited and most programs lasted no more than thirty minutes. Mornings often featured shows for children like Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo. My mother carefully screened my viewing habits and made sure that I rarely spent more than thirty minutes in front of the television before turning off the power and sending me to play. She herself rarely watched anything during the daytime hours. It was my father who seemed to rather quickly become addicted to this new technology.
As soon as he came home each day Daddy liked to watch the evening news which was a quick thirty minute review of the day’s events featuring a reading of facts with virtually no commentary. After my father had learned about the happenings we would adjourn for dinner. My mother insisted that we eat at our kitchen table so we never indulged in eating frozen dinners from a tray while watching our favorite shows, a trend that slowly became popular as people become more and more enchanted with the entertainment. Once we had enjoyed some family time my father carefully selected mostly comedies to watch for an hour or so each evening. Depending on the content of the program I got to watch with him and my mother but not for too long because my mom did not want me to become obsessed with the new fangled invention like some of my uncles already had done. The viewing time ended for everyone each evening with the National Anthem followed by a stagnant test pattern that stayed on the screen until the following morning.
The early televisions were built with all kinds of tubes that had a tendency to fail and so the job of t.v. repairman came into vogue. One of my father’s cousins made a small fortune traveling from home to home to fix screens that suddenly went black or began to flip continually. We had our own guy who came in a paneled truck filled with all of the parts that he might need to return a good picture to our television. My brothers and I enjoyed watching him do his magic as he examined the mysterious electronics of our machine to find burned out bulbs and loose wires.
After my father died we were still watching programs on the model that he had purchased many years earlier but eventually that original could no longer be repaired so my mother purchased a new version with a much bigger screen. By that time programming was much more interesting than it had been in the early days. There were even shows that lasted an hour and the quality of the writing and acting had greatly improved. My mother had also become more and more willing to allow me and my brothers to spend more time watching our favorite programs as long as our homework and chores were done. She even made Saturday nights extra special by serving dinner and snacks as we watched shows until late in the evening.
Some of our friends and relatives began to purchase televisions that featured color. It was a marvel that was as stunning as that first moment when my father brought television into our lives. It would be awhile before our family actually owned a color television but visits to my cousins’ homes were delightful because we got to see westerns and dramas with all the hues of the spectrum. I remember being so fascinated that I spent more time sitting next to my uncles than visiting and playing with the kids.
Of course we all know the rest of the story. Televisions are bigger and more reliable than ever before. There are hundreds of channels and streaming services that provide choices twenty four hours a day. There is never a moment when someone somewhere is not reporting the news, even in the middle of the night. Huge screens hang over our mantles like paintings and portraits once did. Sound systems give the feel of a movie theater. Many families gather around their favorite programs for dinner rather than conversing at a table. People lie in their beds watching shows late into the night. Children have their own televisions inside their rooms. The novelty and wonder of it all is gone. We take our televisions for granted as though they have always been an integral part of life.
When I think back over time I remember the Saturday mornings when my brothers and I quietly went to the living room in our pajamas to watch shows designed just for us. I recall the joy I felt watching The Mickey Mouse Club with my friend Lynda each afternoon and then dreaming of becoming a Mouseketeer. I loved the old comedies like I Love Lucy and Red Skelton but mostly enjoyed the westerns and still love James Garner as Maverick. I felt a kinship with the Cartwright family on Bonanza and longed to be grown up enough to watch late night television.
Eventually I would have my own family and our viewing habits would center on programs like The Carol Burnett Show, Little House on the Prairie, and The Waltons. Then came cable television and it felt as though our worldview changed with channels like CNN and MTV. In spite of all the possibilities I still most enjoy the kind of thirty minute comedies that I once watched with my father. I always feel a bit sad when my favorites run their course and go away.
I suppose that as television has evolved over my lifetime so have I. That marvel has been both a blessing and a curse for society. I suspect that we have all too often allowed its influence to dominate and manipulate how we feel about things. I’ve had to turn it off much like my mother once did just to allow my thoughts to be my own. I have learned how to keep a balance and to understand that it is a business with an agenda that may or may not jibe with who I am and what I believe. As long as I view it as entertainment rather than truth I think I will be okay. If I want facts rather than soundbites I know that I have to do my own research but if I’m just looking for a great story and a bit of escape the wonders of television are at my fingertips and a whole world of imagination is waiting for me to enjoy on a big screen that would have made my father smile with delight.