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Surviving and thriving in TV’s cultural warfare

October 31, 2018

I have been watching television for a very long time. The progression of images on the screen has punctuated my life, from the vision-impairing television sets of my youth to the room-filling screens that take up much of the floor space at the local Costco. In 1947, my family was the first on 44th Street in Boro Park, Brooklyn to own a television set. It was either a Crosley or a Dumont. It was housed in a huge cabinet and had a screen that resembled a goldfish bowl in size and appearance. I don’t remember the early programs, but I do know that my family all gathered round to squint at the news. The picture resembled a black and white photograph viewed through a bowl of clear Jello. It was not conducive to long viewing. 

 

In 1952, the Republican and Democrat political conventions were televised and my father took over the television set for the duration of both. He (I am sorry to say) was a Democrat and he was thrilled that Adlai Stevenson was nominated to run against General Dwight Eisenhower. All that I can remember from those heady days was the roll call of the states. The television boomed (well, not boomed … squeaked) the clerk’s calling out the votes:  

 

“IOWAYYYY.”  

 

“MR. CHAIRMAN, THE GREAT STATE OF IOWA, FIRST IN THE PRODUCTION OF CORN, OATS, SOYBEANS, CATTLE, MILK and CALVES; THE STATE WHERE THE TALL CORN GROWS, CASTS ITS VOTES FOR ADLAI STEVENSON …” 

 

For some reason this totally fascinated my father. I wanted to watch “The Long Ranger,” (yes, I do know that it was actually “Lone”) but it didn’t matter. Those were the days when the entertainment desires of a kid didn’t really matter when there was only one television in the house. 

 

In my memory, early television was populated by Robert Q. Lewis, John Daly and Bill Cullen. As far as I was concerned they were the only live people who actually appeared. Later on Gary Moore and Art Linkletter showed up, but they were walk-ons. My early television experiences were focused on: 1) Kukla, Fran and Ollie; 2) Mr. I-Ma-Gi-Nation; 3) The Long Ranger; 4) Hopalong Cassidy and; 5) Ed Sullivision (as my kid sister called him). 

 

In those days, television was a strictly local affair, so the programs that I was watching in New York were probably different from the ones that some kid was watching in Cleveland. For all that I know, the programs that I was watching in Jamaica Estates, Queens were probably different from the ones that some kid was watching in the Bronx. Who knew? Who cared? Television was personal and up close (literally … you had to sit on top of the screen to see it and your mother would scream at you every five minutes to move back or you would go blind). 

 

Then I became a teenager and Dick Clark and American Bandstand dominated the television and my life. I wanted to dance like Louie and Arlene. I wanted to live in Philadelphia. I drove my mother crazy to get her to buy me khaki pants with a belt in the back, bass weejuns and white sweat socks. I wanted to be on American Bandstand!! 

As a family we all watched together “Your Show of Shows” with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. As far as my father was concerned, Sid Caesar was the ultimate comic genius (I think my father was right, although Mel Brooks, who wrote for the program, is right up there with Sid as far as I am concerned). It has been 64 years since the last “Your Show of Shows” was televised and I still remember it in hysterics.  

 

It was replaced by Lawrence Welk. Go figure. 

 

“The Twilight Zone,” “Gunsmoke,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” “Perry Mason,” “Sea Hunt;” these and other programs established the rhythms of my life. There was no video tape. If you missed the program — you missed the program! So, you set your schedule so that you were tube-side when they came on. Then, in school the next morning, you would dissect each program — was Miss Kitty one of THOSE women? Could Ralph Kramden’s Handy Housewife Helper actually core an apple? These were subjects of major discussion (and laughter) in the hallways of Jamaica High School. 

 

My television memories are filled with great moments. Things, however, gradually changed. Television “drama” got darker. Men, for the most part, were depicted as bumbling idiots.  

 

Then, Tivo appeared to liberate us all. I am not the most technologically proficient guy in the universe (even on my block). It takes me a while to change my paradigms (i.e., I was the last guy to get a cell phone). However, I broke out of my technological malaise when I purchased a Tivo. Suddenly, my time was my own. If I wanted to see Hill Street Blues, I could record it and watch it whenever I chose. If I wasn’t able to remain awake to watch Johnny Carson, I could Tivo it and watch him kibitz Burt Reynolds on my time schedule, not CBS’s. However, something strange began happening. Weird programs were beginning to appear on my Tivo machine — programs that I had never recorded. Suddenly, Bob Ross’ chrysanthemum hairdo started appearing with his PBS “how-to-do-art” programs. I accused my esteemed wife of playing with the TIVO (she was not permitted to touch it — only I had that privilege). She responded with a variety of expletives that would not be suitable for printing in these pages. It was a mystery. 

 

Suddenly, my wife came up with the answer. I had purchased a Garmin GPS (another one of my technology leaps). I enjoyed testing Mrs. Garmin (I had selected the female voice for directions), so if Mrs. Garmin would say “turn left,” I would turn right and enjoy the innumerable “recalculating” remonstrations that would result. Our bedroom was located directly above the garage. My esteemed wife came up with the brilliant theory that, after enduring my refusals to follow directions, Mrs. Garmin communicated with Tivo (located in the bedroom directly above Mrs. Garmin) and told Tivo: “these people are impossible. They refuse to allow directions. Do something.” Tivo followed Mrs. Garmin’s revenge request by recording all sorts of strange programs, thus using up memory and leaving no room for the programs that I wanted. At least that was my esteemed wife’s theory. I still have no theory to counter it. Thereafter, I always followed Mrs. Garmin’s directions and the TIVO stopped its vituperative recalcitrance. 

 

Nowadays, everything is different. For a while, the only thing that I would watch on television was Fox News, but after a while the “mute” button wore out (Juan Williams was as ubiquitous as Robert Q. Lewis and Bill Cullen) and I couldn’t take it. Today’s commercial offerings seem to be dominated by programs written by “social justice warriors” intent on imposing political correctness on us and shoving and liberal politics down our throats.  

Another thing that has positively driven me insane about contemporary television is the nature of the advertisements that appear. I won’t even discuss the hemorrhoid remedies. What has my blood up now are the numerous pharmaceutical commercials that simply cannot be avoided. It seems that every disease can now be identified with two or three letters in much the same way as we use nicknames for old friends. ED (erectile dysfunction) is a particular favorite — what it has to do with two people outdoors in adjoining bathtubs completely escapes me (what would you think if you were strolling on the beach and came across the aforementioned people in the aforementioned adjacent bathtubs? Given the ubiquitousness of the commercial, I have no doubt that ED would pop up in a nanosecond). 

 

One characteristic that is true of all of these pharma commercials is that each and every one of the people who populate them is walking in slow motion. It is as if they are walking through the syrup that you get with canned peaches. They are always smiling and saying incomprehensible things. I have often been tempted to seek out someone who is a proficient lipreader to find out what is actually being said. Of course, the basic question really presented is, why the devil is a drug being advertised for the layman, on television? I once took the bait. I saw a commercial for something or other and I asked my doctor (this was in N.Y., not Charleston) about the drug. His response: “do you want to take it?” “DO I WANT TO TAKE IT? HOW DO I KNOW? THAT’S WHY YOU’RE HERE!” I replied. 

 

I changed doctors. 

 

And what about PBS? Isn’t PBS supposed to be “commercial free.” If so, why are there commercials on PBS? For example, they are always showing a commercial for a company that sells river cruises. The voice over is a woman with a really plummy British accent. What is that about? Does the advertiser think that a British accent is classy enough to attract classy customers who watch PBS? What’s wrong with one of the myriad American accents? What about a voiceover with a plummy Bronx accent? That would certainly catch my attention and might sell me on a cruise a lot better than something voiced by a woman who sounds like she needs a double dose of Metamucil. 

 

There are so many of these ads that I had become desperate in my search for entertainment. Then, I discovered “Forged In Fire,” the only cooking show for men on television. I can’t get enough of it. I have watched the forging of the Japanese Katana so many times that I am thinking of setting up a forge in my garage (though the HOA might have other ideas).  

 

I was thrilled to discover Netflix. Wow! I started watching movies and Spanish cooking programs. There was so much to watch, that I couldn’t figure out what to watch. I found myself scrolling through the names of hundreds of offerings, unable to select one. That is how I discovered foreign television series. The first one that I discovered was a Danish series entitled “Dicte,” and I was totally hooked. I quickly learned the meaning of the term “binge watching.” Then, “Fauda” appeared and blew my binge watching brain to bits. Totally riveting. 

 

The quality of the competition for the commercial broadcast networks is astounding. I confess that I am a fan of chick flicks, the soapier the better — and I found chick flick heaven on the cable. I am now hooked on a subscription network called “Acorn,” which is a network dedicated to British, Australian and New Zealand programs. In one of my favorites, “800 Words,” a widower leaves Australia with his teenage children and moves to a small town in New Zealand, where he runs into all sorts of complications among the natives who consist of a great looking surfer guy best mate, three beautiful women and a variety of characters who interact with him as the script demands. I really loved it. 

We now have everything at our fingertips. At any time, night or day, we can watch news, be entertained, or see every sporting event on the planet. We can learn about history and science, archaeology and home repair, how Brits bake a cake and how to plant a garden. We can watch operas, ballets and plays. We can see concerts, parades and fabulous fireworks. And there are even channels where we can see many of the programs we watched 50 years ago! 

 

It’s a long way from “Kukla, Fran and Ollie.”  

 

Stuart Kaufman is a retired lawyer, investment banker and businessman. He relocated from New York to Mount Pleasant in 2012. A friend recently told him that he has been a South Carolinian all of his life ... but he just didn’t know it. 

 

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