It wasn’t very easy watching television in the good old days. Baby boomers like me grew up with television when it was in its infancy. In those days televisions were powered by large tubes rather than lightweight electronic circuitry. They had a large, thick glass picture tube that displayed a program in black and white. TV’s were so big and heavy that they were often incorporated into a piece of furniture with its wooden cabinet, cabinet doors, a radio and maybe a record players. Not my family…we had a used no frills TV.
The smallest component of the TV was its viewing screen. We would have to sit up close to see anything being broadcast. Back then the only programming for kids was cartoons with non speaking characters and classical music for sound. Tom & Jerry (cat and mouse) and Heckle & Jeckle (crows) never had much to say. My mother would warn us that if we sat too close to the television we would either go blind or need glasses. She rarely watched TV yet she wore glasses. We could never figure that one out! She had a doomsday warning for just about everything my brothers and I did.
Television programming did not commence until two PM every afternoon when soap operas like “One Life to Live” and “As the World Turns” began its broadcasting day. These shows were called “Soap Operas” because they were sponsored by soap companies like Lux Soap Flakes and Ivory Snow Soap and appealed to house wives who stayed home and cared for the house and family. Hmmm… that’s probably why my Mom’s eyes went bad from watching those soap operas while we were in school!
If you were planning to watch a TV show, it took a little preparation to do so. No… you could not just turn on the TV set and expect to get a clear crisp picture. It took some maneuvering and skill to get a grainy black and white picture at best. Regardless of the TV set you owned, there was a set of dials that helped you obtain a clearer picture on the screen. Not everyone knew how to use those dials. It took practice and proficiency to adjust your television. My mother could never do it. She would rely on one of her sons to do it for her.
Step One was to turn the television ON (TV’s had an On and OFF dial) and wait for the picture tube to warm up. This could take several minutes. You knew the picture tube was ready when you heard a strange “wooshing and crackling sound” emitted by the tube. Step Two was to adjust the vertical and horizontal dials. The initial image on the screen would roll and flutter both vertically and horizontally until someone with “TV technical knowledge” made the fine tuning adjustments. Even with these adjustments, there was no guarantee that the rolling and fluttering would not occur again. It most cases it was an ongoing problem you learned to live with. With all that preparation completed, one would think that it was now possible to watch TV. The answer to that assumption was a resounding NO! On top of the TV was a contraption called “Rabbit Ears.” (YES…Rabbit Ears!). They didn’t look like the ears of a rabbit with the exception that there were two fairly long retractable antennae that could be moved, twisted and raised up and down to get that grainy picture on the screen less grainy. My Uncle Joe wrapped aluminum foil around his pair of Rabbit Ears thinking that it would help get better reception. I never recall it working contrary to his assurances that it worked when we were not there.
The final step to fine tune the TV was fiddling around with the Contrast dial. This dial could either lighten or darken your TV screen depending on how light or dark you kept your TV room. All we had was a ceiling light. It made it easy to adjust the contrast level based on whether the ceiling light was on or off.
The saving grace with all of this was that there were only three broadcasting stations that were available in our area. They were NBC, CBS and Dumont Broadcasting. ABC came later on. Remember… if you changed TV stations you would have to readjust your TV set for the new channel. I also forgot to mention that there was no remote control or cable box. If you wanted to change channels, you had to leave your chair, confront the television and manually change the station by turning a large round dial (Channel Selector Dial) that was numbered 1-13. It also had a dial position labeled UHF. I still don’t know what that was for.
Watching TV after school was not an option. We changed from our school clothes into our play clothes (yes... there was a difference between school clothes, play clothes and Sunday Go To Church clothes).
Just before five PM every afternoon my brothers and I would stop playing in the empty lot across the street when my mother announced (yelled)…”Boys… it’s Howdy Doody time!” We dropped whatever we were doing and returned home to watch The Howdy Doody Show with Buffalo Bob (it’s host), Mr. Phineus T. Bluster, Mr. Cornelius Cobb, Flub-A-Dub, Dilly Dally, Chief Thunder Thud, Princess Summer-Fall -Winter –Spring, Dr. Sing-A-song and a long list of other marionette and human characters. If you were a kid and your parents owned a television, then there was a good chance that you were watching Howdy Doody before supper (aka dinner). My daughters still call me out for using such an archaic word.
Most TV programming was for adults. Beside Howdy Doody, there was very little for kids to watch except on Saturday morning when my brothers and I watched cartoons. As televisions improved so did the programming. There were no shows with “adult themes or language” so almost any show was acceptable to see. What really mattered was the time of day (or night) a particular show was being televised.
Broadcasting began at 6 AM and ended at 11 PM to the sight and sound of the American flag waving in the breeze to the National Anthem. Once programming ceased for the evening a test pattern appeared on your TV screen with a high pitch humming sound in the background. The test pattern was used so that you could adjust the vertical and horizontal adjustments on your TV sets. Those TV manufacturers thought of everything.
When my brothers and I were lucky enough to view television without our parents consent, the unwritten rule was that whoever got to the den first (that’s where the one and only TV was located) got to pick the station and show. To insure that I was able to watch the TV show of my choice in its entirety (in the event I had to use the bathroom or get a snack during a Lucky Strike cigarette commercial), I would remove the loose Channel Selector Dial from the television rendering it impossible for anyone else to change the channel in my absence (Yes, even as kids, we were very territorial).
My father, who loved western TV shows (Gunsmoke, Lone Ranger, Gene Autry, Roy Rodgers) ultimately, had the last say as to what we would watch. Whoever held the Channel Selector Dial had to surrender it over to him because he ultimately chose what the family was going to watch that evening. TV was such a novelty that we didn’t care what we watched. We were content.
Today my TV has access to hundreds of channels yet I can count on one hand the number of channels that I actually watch. It’s not much more than the three channels I remember watching as a kid.