I was a cable virgin once. But not anymore. No, now I’m part of the cable nation, absorbed into this TV channel fest like liquid brains sucked up by a Shop Vac. This took some time for me. I made it well into my 50th year before I waved the cable caravan into my home.
Cable came to my hometown Sacramento in the mid 80s, a lot of years later than in most towns. Sacramento is a flat valley floor and for years, everybody got their TV shows by way of rooftop antennas. When I bought my little suburban home in 1984, my house, along with most others in the neighborhood, had one of those telltale aluminum contraptions on its roof.
The one on my house was installed by the previous owner, and it towered high above the neighborhood. This baby was mounted at the top of a pipe about three stories tall. The pipe was held in place with four metal guy wires anchored to rings screwed into the roof. The former owner told me the antenna’s height, with its direction-adjusting “Tenna-rotor” remote control, was to make sure his wife could pick up her favorite TV show, viewable only on San Francisco stations.
To pick up SF stations you just turned the unit’s dial to the SW point on the circle, and the antenna rotated – ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk – until it got there.
The chatty guy who sold me the house coveted his setup so much that when he moved to another neighborhood, he asked if I’d let him take the antenna controller with him. Sensing the gizmo could be valuable, I said no.
Enrique, my neighbor across the street at the time, told of his help in installing this towering antenna, and remembered it as a horrible, horrible experience he’d never do again. Enrique and chatty guy put it up, one holding the antenna upright, while the other staggered around the roof, tightening the guy wires while worrying about two things: falling off the roof, and/or getting clobbered by a very tall aluminum pole and antenna heading earthward, out of control. Not worth it, Enrique assured me.
Not long after we got settled in with our San Francisco powered TV antenna, a cable company set up shop in Sacramento. But since we could still get just about anything we wanted on our mondo antenna, I decided against cable.
My late mom was the reason. While I was growing up, she always preached the evils of watching too much TV, smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. She was a reader, and was convinced TV turned off one’s brain and mixmastered it into nonthinking mush. Just look at the blank stare of anybody watching TV. She had a point.
By 1992 my 19-inch color TV died, so I bought another one. Then Elena and I got the crazy notion to add another story to our house to get the extra space we wanted. When the dust cleared, we had the TV in a built-in stack of shelves facing the living room. But one of the first things to fall in the remodel was that tall-ass antenna. I watched it topple off the house and onto the back lawn in a few seconds. The wreckage was thrown into the carpenter’s debris bin, and forgotten.
Until, that is, when we tried to pick up local stations on the now, nearly closeted TV. Rabbit ears couldn’t be used: no clearance on the shelf. Elena found one of these gizmos in a catalog that promised to turn your entire electrical system into an antenna!
We got it in the mail and hooked it up, and well, it kinda worked, but mostly not. Couldn’t get all the local channels. And San Francisco stations? Forget it.
We went through a few years of financial and emotional recovery from the remodel, which turned out great. But because we pretty much did all the painting, molding and other various small jobs to save money, we were left with the energy of two people dying of thirst crawling across a desert.
Meanwhile, the cable world had weaved its expanding content into the nation, creating a parallel universe of shows we would only hear about from other people, but never see: Sex in the City, The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Six Feet Under, The Daily Show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, HGTV, and on and on. People swore by these shows.
But we couldn’t get them, except when we left town and stayed in hotels or motels. Elena would commandeer the remote on those occasions, feverishly changing channels to see all that she was missing. We knew there was stuff we’d like to watch, but we still hadn’t gotten around to doing anything about it.
Our choices for a fix were clear. Get cable. Or the much less expensive option, get another rooftop antenna. I’m sure Elena wanted cable, but I didn’t. I wasn’t crazy about the idea of paying a monthly bill for a lot of crap TV I'd never watch. So we go to an electronics store and I ask the sales kid where the antennas are.
Right about now, this kid thinks I’m a raving lunatic with tin foil on my ears, crinkled just so, to pick up alien signals from space.
“Why don’t you just get a satellite dish?” he asks.
Sensing I didn’t want one of those, he went to ask somebody else at the store what it was that I wanted.
Elena tried very hard not to laugh.
Another sales guy points up to some long cardboard boxes collecting dust above a row of displays at the back of the store.
He pulls one down and I buy it. I bolt it to the chimney atop my roof and run a cable from it to the 19-inch. Sure enough, I could pick up all the local stations. At last, free TV again!
But my excitement over this only brought sympathetic looks which, translated, said, “You sad and pathetic, poor, cheap bastard. Heaven help you, and here’s to hoping that someday you’ll wean yourself off the crazy pills.”
Meanwhile, only the biggest sports events could be seen over the air. Everyday stuff like baseball games, all went to cable. And more extensive coverage of big events like the Tour de France, the World Cup, and Wimbledon was all on cable. Then high definition TVs started proliferating, and more programs offering HDTV. And then DVR, cable’s answer to TiVo’s satellite program recording came out
The tipping point was coming, and I knew it. I’d seen HDTVs every time we went to the buy 50 pounds of tortilla chips discount-warehouse store. I knew this inner shift, this cultural conversion, was here.
We went to look at HDTV flat panels because we had the perfect place to put a flat panel. We settled on one and then ordered cable. I warned Elena that this would be a call to addiction to trash TV reruns, movies, sports, etc. etc., etc., and that, at least initially, we could go through a dizzying period of binge viewing.
After years of standing clear of the cable beast’s awesome pull, a violent vortex into videoland, I knew I would be helpless as a doe-eyed baby harp seal with a vicious hunter’s club raised above its fleshy skull. At least for awhile.
And sure enough, for the first weeks of cable I watched nothing but sports, NBA finals, baseball games, World Cup games, more baseball games. Every time Elena looked up I was watching a Giants game. “When can we watch something I want to watch?” she asked, dismayed.
“I warned you,” I said. “Maybe we should get another flat panel in the front room.” I was dull-eyed and sedentary.
But I found that even cable’s commercials are better than those on free TV. Since when has there been a Jack Daniel’s ad on free TV? Then there’s the ad for a hangover remedy called “Chaser,” touted to contain charcoal and some other stuff that filter the hangover molecules out of your system. “Helps stop hangovers before they start.”
Elena’s co-workers were stunned at her reporting that we’d suddenly jumped across the abyss from a cable-challenged, 14-year-old, 19-inch TV, to a 40-inch flat screen LCD HDTV with DVR.
One co-worker recalled another of her worst to first moves. After driving a 1965 Rambler Classic for 10 years, a car she bought for $500 and which had doors that wouldn’t lock, she bought a brand new Volkswagen Passat with not only remote control door locks, but get this: heated leather seats.
“You skipped over a lot of stuff in the middle there,” said the co-worker, who frothed at the sound of a big flat panel HDTV. “How does that work?”
Yes, we took the grand leap into overdrive, or we could have actually decided to shift our brains into permanent reverse. If we devolve to the point of watching cable TV all day, we’re in deep do-do. Because watching too much cable, I’m sure, has the power to lock us into a catatonic state in which we think like monkeys.
Lord, give us strength.