Something to Watch

by Peter Wallace, © 2007

People are different now. Fifty years ago, many people in the workforce were World War II veterans, and children of the Great Depression. Both of those historical events would have to change a person. The consistent view of parents was to provide their children with a better life than they had experienced, so, relatively speaking, my generation was spoiled, although by comparison to more recent generations, we had it pretty tough.

When people contemplate the changes in American society in the past 50 years, they speculate on what factors have taken us from the people we were then to becoming the people we are now. I’m sure there are many things that have contributed to the changes in society, but I’m convinced that the biggest single factor has been television.

I’m of the age of people who were generally born into households that already had a TV set. The first TV I remember was a Zenith or a Philco… I don’t remember which. It had a gray steel housing, and a screen about the size of laptop computer screen. Because it had tubes instead of transistors, it took 30 seconds to turn on, and the vertical and horizontal hold knobs were used often, as we tried to keep the picture from rolling or going sideways. Of course, it was black and white.

Watching TV was something we did as a family, or with permission during weekends and summer vacations, or the occasional sick day. I remember eating popcorn while watching the election returns for the 1960 presidential contest. I remember “Howdy Doody,” and “Romper Room,” and the early “Mickey Mouse Club.” But, the TV wasn’t always on, and even the silliest of comedy programs had an element of dignity to them.

As time went on, the TV sets got a little better, the screens got a little bigger, and the off switch wasn’t used as much. I think back on the hours I wasted watching television as a kid, I kick myself. And yet, I know we watched less than many families. But, I learned much about American society and being an adult from what I saw on TV. I learned that adults always pour a stiff drink when they come home from work, that mothers wore dresses all the time, and that fathers went to some vague sort of “work” now and then, but were usually home with their courteous and respectful children.

Nothing that we saw on TV turned out to be accurate, except maybe for the Andy Griffith show, which seemed to depict small town America of that era in a true, albeit caricatured way. Later in the 1960s, TV got sexier, with “Laugh-In,” “The Dean Martin Show,” and spicy jokes in Johnny Carson’s monologues. Kids like I were watching a lot, with less parental supervision.

Fast forward to 2007, and most houses have 100 channels of programming, no supervision of kids’ watching, and little restriction on violence or sex on all channels, and no restrictions on some premium channels.

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