I remember when we had one TV with three channels on it. Each of those three channels was playing something different, and you simply chose which one of the three you preferred and were done with it. The process of finding something to watch was several orders of mangitude simpler, and because most families had just one TV, more communal as well. Assuming you saved the newspaper, you could look ahead in the TV guide to see what was coming later in the week, but you had to wait until the show’s allotted time before you could watch it. There was no such thing as “on demand,” and if you missed it, well, you missed it. If this sounds like a bit of a drag, it’s because it was. I remember the horrible sinking feeling of waking up on Saturday morning and realizing I’d slept too late and missed my favorite cartoons. Then, as now, I loved me some Scooby Doo. On the flip side though, having the stakes raised a little by its being now or never made it that much more fun and exciting when you did wake up on time, and the arrival of the new fall TV lineup was all the more eventful for being tied to a specific date and time.
Cable TV, when it came, introduced a lot more programming choices, to the point where Bruce Springsteen’s “57 Channels and Nothing On” now sound positively quaint. It also introduced more complicated hardware. With cable TV, the TV set alone was no longer adequate. Signals had to be descrambled, which required the inclusion of a cable TV box. Time shifting devices, such as the Tivo followed, and now smart TVs and set top boxes. These days I have an Apple TV, a Google TV device from Sony, an app-enabled blu-ray player, an HTPC, and a Roku all running through a receiver that outputs the audio through a 5.2 speaker setup and the video through an HDMI splitter to two projectors. (I keep my old one around to save the bulb life on the new one.) Feeding this, I have subscription services to Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Prime that provide access to tens of thousands of TV shows and movies, not to mention what I rent a la carte from iTunes and Vudu.
So is it better now? Hard to say. On the one hand, it’s nice to have choices. While the rise of brick and mortar video rental stores did bring some variety, even during their heyday, you weren’t likely to find many art house or foreign films available at your average video store in West Texas. In contrast, now I have ready access to over 400 Criterion Collection films on Hulu Plus alone. On the other hand, this proliferation for me all too often simply leads to deer-in-the-headlights paralysis. Humm, I’ll think. I still haven’t seen Lawrence of Arabia, and then there are all those Kurosawa films that inspired Star Wars and the spaghetti westerns, and speaking of spaghetti westerns, those would be fun to watch again too. Granted, it’s a first world problem if there ever was one; nevertheless, it can make make one nostalgic for simpler times, such as that depicted in this September 1978 network TV schedule:
Yeah, let’s watch The Hardy Boys Mysteries and then Battlestar Gallactica. Definitely Battlestar Gallactica. I predict ABC sweeps the Nielson’s.