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The Cold Filtered Ramblings of Gene Mueller

Notice Anything Different About How You Watch TV?

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          In the beginning, there was the cathode ray tube, and it was good.


          It was small, round, and came in three colors: black, white and Gray.      All shades of gray.


         The little round portal that lit up but for a few hours a day eventually changed shape (kinda square), grew larger, and stayed on a lot longer.     It would turn colors before lo, someone hooked a coaxial cable up to expand it's offerings.     Soon, the only way to get it will be in HD form, and trust me, lo, it rocks.    


         Despite the decades of changes the act of watching television stayed pretty much the same.    It didn't matter if it was black and white, round or square, cable or not.      Viewing meant putting the box in one corner, then  strategically locating a chair so that it would put your dead ass squarely in front of the business side of your set.     


         What important development did I leave out in my primitive description of the history of telecasting?     Did you catch it?    Huh?


        It's not a part of your set--well, it is, but it's not actually attached to it.      And, it's mission in life is to make sure your previously mentioned backside stays where it is: burrowed deeply into the cushion of your favorite couch/recliner.    It's that thing you spend an inordinate part of your life searching for between the sofa cushions.    




     The remote.


        My first brush with TV was a black and white RCA, a fine piece of furniture with a curious maroon finish that introduced me to the likes of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Gilligan's Island, The Adams Family and the news of the day: the Cuban missile crisis, JFK's murder, and the 1968 Democratic convention (the Muellers of Sheboygan were WAY late to that color part of t-v's evolution).


       The most important part of our primitive set was the large knob on the side that brought us not only the four channels our roof antenna could suck in from Milwaukee, but three more from Green Bay (thank God for the rotor).      Changing channels was a very involved operation, especially if you wanted to go from that night's episode of "Burke's Law" on Milwaukee's Channel 12 to the 10:00 news on Green Bay's Channel 2.     First, turn the knob.     Then, turn the rotor so the antenna would switch from south  to north-northwest.      And, it took a while, too--about a minute, all told.       You got really good at performing this ritual during commercials, which explains why I never saw an Anacin ad from start to finish.


        Changing channels meant work (getting up), forethought (having a channel and new program in mind) and exertion (actually walking to the set, twirling the knob, then returning to the ass-rut), three acts the remote turned into ancient rituals.      You don't like what you're seeing?    ZAP!      Bored with a show?     ZAP!      What's the deal with Brian Williams' tie tonight?    ZAP!


        The remote changed everything--including what the glowing tube offers.      Even one of the early Lord Gods of television, Sid Caesar. admitted as much on the PBS series "Pioneers of Television".       The documentary looked at different facets of early TV, including game shows, late night talk, and the departed prime time staple: the variety show.      Caesar pointed out the obvious in talking about the death of the variety genre, blaming the remote for creating immediate options and thus, the end of tolerating that which we didn't like (Ed Sullivan dedicating 10 prime Sunday night minutes to opera) only to be rewarded a short time later with something we couldn't wait to see (the Italian mouse, Topo Gigo)


        Another, more recent development, is television on demand, be it in a different format (disc or tape) or via cable.      Have you noticed an uptick in the number of people who are foregoing prime time, only to wait until a series is available on DVD or cable when they can watch it at their own leisure, often in three or four episodic bursts?     I did that recently with Showtime's "Californication"--a hip, uber-adult sitcom that I truly enjoyed, not just because it's clever, funny, poignant and profane.    I liked being able to injest as much as I wanted to in one or two sittings, not having to wait a week to get my fix.     I hear more and more people saying the same thing about ABC's "Lost"--an innovative drama who's creativity is thwarted by it's endless myriad of dead ends and the whims of network scheduling which keeps us from getting regular weekly fixes.       With all the other choices, we find other things to waste our attention on.


        There's a charm to television of those days gone by--entertainment, and the way we consume it, are in a state of constant change.    It's a great cocktail party debate: how different would early television have been if today's technology was in place back in the day?    Would programs like Caesar's "Show of Shows" been given the time to become the classics they are today if people had more options?     What then of broadcast journalism?      Would the Watergate hearings been a cable-only event?     How would THAT have changed history?


        And, would Gillian's three-hour cruise ever even seen the light of day?

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