Younger readers will probably be horrified to learn that during my formative years 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 Federal Communications Commission (FCC). I’ve also read that this wasn’t necessarily true – that there was a quirk in the system 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.” (By the way, the funniest part of this line was calling Austin a great big city in 1964.)
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). Accordingly, between 1952 and 1971 there were some television shows that Austin television viewers could never watch. So one of the treats awaiting me when I visited my Dallas grandparents was the opportunity to view all three networks and programs on three different Dallas stations (expanding to 6 local stations during the 1960s). For some reason, I loved watching Jack LaLanne a more sedate Richard Simmons who would lead his viewers 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 on the Austin television lineup. In contrast, daytime television in Austin was devoted to game shows, soap operas, and for kids, the locally produced 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 north to see a television show.
However, it’s good that this change in media availability happened gradually, because the sheer volume can be overwhelming for those of us raised on so few choices. Television was only one aspect of our optionless world. We communicated via telephone landlines that were all provided by Southwestern Bell — they all looked alike and had rotary dials. All car windows had to be opened and closed with manual roll-up handles and all kitchen appliances were white (until we got avocado green). Typewriting involved pressing a key hard enough to make an impression and returning a “carriage” to the beginning point at the end of each line. A teeny bell would alert you that your line’s end was near. I can still recall the hubbub of bells in our eighth grade typing class. (Yes, we had typing classes so that many of us women could be secretaries!)
Is it any wonder that many of us from this boomer generation are technologically challenged? Our brains are not hardwired to be constantly learning new ways to view television, figure out our phones, and constantly be choosing, choosing, choosing. It’s exhausting!
Back in the mid 70s, I met a fellow UT student from Spain who told me that the problem with America was too many choices. I thought that was an amusing observation. 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, it was easy to go about your shopping. But 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 specialty product in lieu of the one you bought last time. I long wondered whether my Spanish friend made it back to Spain before his head exploded.
I often think about commercials and the small fortunes spent to convince us that one brand of shampoo is better than another, when all will clean our hair. And how many women are convinced that certain wrinkle creams are the answer to our aging faces? Cable providers spend big bucks to show us that we need their special cable boxes or satellites to watch, record, and replay what they broadcast. They even want us to have systems so we can pause and unpause as we move around a household of televisions.
As I contemplate all the money spent in helping us decide which brands of consumer goods, I can’t help but think about the real needs and problems that have no advertising budget? Aside from endless war, we need to provide homes for the homeless and food for the hungry, bring about an end to racism and bigotry, and take steps to eliminate the discrepancy between the haves and have-nots of our society. Instead, we accept progress in terms of not missing even a few seconds of programming as we move through houses full of television screens.