Younger readers will probably be horrified to learn that during my formative years living in Austin, we had just one television station. The sole source of television fare was provided by KTBC, which started broadcasting in 1952 and was owned by the Johnson family (as in Lyndon Baines Johnson). It was said, by at least some folks, that LBJ made sure that no other competitors could get a station from the FCC. I’ve also read that this wasn’t necessarily true – that there was a quirk in the system at the FCC involving the allocation of stations, something to do with VHF and UHF station availability. I’ll leave it up to you students of quantum wave theory (I made that up) to clarify whether there was some scientific reason for this station shortage, but I don’t think you have to be a conspiracy theorist to speculate that LBJ had quantum clout at the FCC that could have untangled any non-scientific quirkiness. In fact, one of Barry Goldwater’s favorite opening lines in his presidential bid against LBJ was “I didn’t have any trouble finding Austin; I just looked for a great big city with only one TV antenna.”
KTBC was primarily a CBS affiliate with secondary affiliations with NBC, and ABC until 1965, when Channel 42 (eventually KXAN) came on air as an NBC affiliate, joined in 1971 by the ABC local affiliate (KVUE). Needless to say, between 1952 and 1971 there were some television shows that were never broadcast in Austin. For me, part of the fun in visiting Dallas grandparents was being able to view all three networks and programs on three different Dallas stations (expanding to 6 local stations during the 1960s). One of the shows I liked to watch at my grandmother’s house was the Jack LaLanne Show, who would lead us in morning exercises, calisthenics, and isometrics. Don’t ask me why, but a guy on television doing sit-ups was quite intriguing. During my younger years, I watched Romper Room in the mornings and the Mickey Mouse Club in the afternoons, and as I got a bit older, the afternoon episodes of “Love That Bob” and “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” none of which appeared in the Austin lineup of shows. In contrast, daytime television in Austin was devoted to game shows, soap operas, and for kids, the Uncle Jay Show with his sidekick Packer Jack.
The advent of cable changed all that, and now, with satellite and/or cable and computer modems, virtually anything is available any time. Every niche market has its station and no one needs to drive 200 miles up the highway to see a television show. In fact, I think you can watch television on smart phones . . . but since I’m not smart enough to have one yet, I can’t guarantee that.
But, I’m glad this change to one station to a virtually inexhaustible supply happened gradually because the number of choices can be overwhelming to those of us raised on so few, if any, choices. Television was only one aspect of our no-choice world. There were only telephone landlines, that were all provided by Southwestern Bell, which all looked alike and had rotary dials. All car windows had to be opened and closed with a manual roll-up handle and all kitchen appliances were white. Typewriting involved pressing a key hard enough to make an impression and returning a “carriage” to the beginning point whenever you finished typing a line, usually at the sound of a pre-set bell.
Is it any wonder that many of us from that generation are technologically challenged? Our brains are not hardwired to be constantly learning new ways to view television, deal with telephones, and constantly be choosing, choosing, choosing. It’s tiring, I’ll have you know!
Back in the mid 70s, I remember a fellow UT student from Spain telling me that the problem with America was too many choices, which I thought was extremely amusing. What could be wrong with choice? In Spain, he explained, there were 2 or 3 choices for products such as toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, etc. Consequently, there, it was easy to go about your shopping, whereas here, he explained, you could spend hours deciding between the relative efficacy of these products, i.e., whether you should try the next new thing, stay with “old faithful,” or whether some newly identified hair problem (e.g., limp) required a speciality product in lieu of the one you bought last time. Although I’m sure Spain has expanded their product choices, I have to wonder if my Spanish friend’s head has exploded yet.
And you can’t think about these choices without being reminded of commercials and how they shape our minds and attempt to convince us that one thing is better than another. One of the latest ones that convinces me that we are all crazy, is the Direct TV ad that explains how one can get hooked up to watch cable television in every room in the house. With this great new feature you can walk among your rooms of televisions, pausing the show in one room and un-pausing it when you get to the next one. Exactly what we need, right?!
Do I really need to mention that there are real needs that our society is not meeting? Like figuring out why we have citizens fighting and dying in wars that have no meaningful point, how we can solve the worst economic crisis since the great depression, and how we can provide for American children who are going to bed hungry, just to name a few. Instead, as a society, we are spending mental energy and capital in the name of progress that amounts to nothing more than figuring out ways not to miss even a few seconds of a television program as we move about in our houses full of televisions?
This is about the time when that little girl who got excited about a trip to Dallas to watch some television is afraid to wonder what she will see next on these black boxes of “progress.”