Monday, April 21, 2014

When Cable Sucked

Many things about our 21st century existence never cease to amaze me, and I am not talking about the device in my pocket that can be a computer, phone, and hold my entire music collection.  I am equally amazed at the vastly superior quality of coffee and beer in this country compared to three decades ago, and with the rise of basic cable television to respectability.  I want to talk about the latter today, because back in the 1980s few could have imagined shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men even existing, much less on the lowly and much-maligned medium of basic cable.

In the first place, the cable pre-history before digitization meant only a limited number of channels were available, and there was no "guide" function to tell you what was on.  My mother is an assiduous neat freak, and as a child I had to watch the TV listings section of the local Saturday paper like a hawk, lest my mother toss it out with the rest of the newspaper.  (Her TV watching habits are so regular, rare, and narrow that she never needed the listings.)  Much of what was on consisted of cast-off, unwanted crap from the networks.  The reruns were often shows so slight that they never made it to network syndication, and the movies of B-grade quality.  Cable was so scuzzy that they had their own awards show (The Ace Awards) because no cable show was ever going to win an Emmy.

It's hard to say when exactly cable started getting respectable.  It became less of a joke roughly between 1987 and 1991, dates that marked the advent of NFL games on ESPN and CNN's coverage of the Gulf War, respectively.  I miss my old low-rent cable, and here are some reasons why:

Cubs and Braves Games
My love of baseball was nourished by WGN and TBS, since they were so starved for programming back then that they broadcast all of the Cubs and Braves games, respectively.  I really learned about baseball by listening to Steve Stone's commentary during Cubs games, and to this day will watch games played at Wrigley on TV just to rekindle old childhood memories.  Oddly enough, the experience never turned me into a fan of either team.  I got sad in later years when both networks cut back on their baseball coverage.

USA Up All Night
My love of guilty cinematic pleasures and so-bad-it's-good movies originates in many a Friday and Saturday night spent watching the fare on USA Up All Night hosted by Gilbert Gottfried on Saturday and Rhonda Shear on Friday.

Music Videos On MTV
I read an oral history of MTV a couple of years ago, and realized that the folks behind MTV were ingenious because they got their programming for free.  The record labels paid for all of those videos, which were much more interesting and compelling than anything any one cable company could have afforded to produce at the time.  I've written a lot about music videos on this blog, suffice to say that they captured my youthful imagination like little else at the time.

Odd Movies
Every now and again I will be flipping channels and see that a cable station in running a Star Wars or Indiana Jones marathon.  Such a thing would have been a complete impossibility in the days of old cable.  On old cable you'd be much more likely to see a Billy Jack or Walking Tall marathon.  Yes those movies are silly by comparison, but they are damn hoot, something there's just too little of these days.

Odd Sports
Before ESPN was the "Worldwide Leader" they filled their hours with roller derby, monster trucks, kick boxing, and Australian rules football.  My dad and I loved to watch these events together, it was a real bonding experience for us.  We especially loved Australian rules football, a sport that combines some of the best attributes of football, soccer, and rugby.  The international programming that ESPN resorted to probably made me a more cosmopolitan, broad-minded person.

Old School CNN Headline News
I was a huge lonely nerd as a kid and abnormally obsessed with the news.  Our local podunk paper had little international news, so I loved watching CNN, back when it was a hard news channel with a heavy emphasis on global events.  I liked Headline News best, since I could get a thirty minute newscast any time of the day, complete with sports highlights at 19 and 49 minutes after the hour.  I was bored and living in the middle of nowhere, so there was nothing more exciting than seeing footage of things like the anti-poll tax protests in Britain or the Ayatollah's funeral.  This once humble channel, which is now a haven for bad morning shows and Nancy Grace, did a lot to educate me about world events.


Anonymous said...

I was born in 1958, so I remember The Time Before Cable, when all I had was the three networks and the local stations (channel five and channel eleven in New Jersey) plus PBS.

But on a Saturday afternoon, I could see Marx Brothers movies, which led to a lifetime of being a fan of 1930s comedy. And there were no infomercials, something that came into existence during the reagan administration.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

My parents were cheap, so we didn't have cable until 1985, when I was 9 or 10. I too remember the Time Before Cable, but where I lived the Saturday afternoon programming was not as interesting, mostly syndicated shows like "She's the Sheriff."

Steve said...

We didn't get WGN, but we did get WOR from New York. In addition to Romper Room and advertisements for Carvel's "Fudgie the Whale" ice cream cake, I got to see those mid-80s Mets teams. We must have just gotten cable in 1984 because I can still remember seeing Dwight Gooden's rookie season.

Anonymous said...

James W. here, too lazy to sign into my blog ID. I remember watching the Sox on WGN with Hawk and Wimpy. I loved their slogan, "The Good Guys Wear Black." I also watched a lot of Cubs and Braves games. I remember summer days fondly, before I was old enough to get a job. I think the nadir of early cable television was the Sci Fi channel. Man was that a cinematic turkey coop.

Anonymous said...

I remember the Carvel commercials, the old dude saying "please buy this product." I remember Officer Joe Bolton hosting the three stooges, and the merry mailman, and Zacherly, and wonderrama, and Uncle Floyd in the '80s. Growing up in pre-cable NJ, I got all the NYC channels.