Stephen King asks if TV is still a ”vast wasteland”
In 1954, my mom finally gave in to her children’s demands for a TV. Our first idiot box was a used Zenith table model that weighed approximately 6,000 pounds. It dominated the living room of our Stratford, Conn., apartment for four years, until we moved back to Maine. At first we got only one channel — WPIX out of New York — but we watched everything it sent our way (mostly blurry old movies starring George Raft). Later, our choices expanded to three channels. After school we had Bob Barker hosting Truth or Consequences (answer wrong and you were razzed by Beulah the Buzzer), Johnny Carson hosting Who Do You Trust? and — best of all — Dick Clark hosting American Bandstand, broadcast out of Philly on WFIL and picked up by ABC. Cable TV was a dream; satellite TV pure science fiction.
Three years after we left that apartment, chairman Newton Minow of the FCC called TV ”a vast wasteland.” To kids enthralled by Route 66, The Twilight Zone, and The Untouchables, it seemed anything but. What did we know? We were kids.
Now the future’s here. I’m one hell of a lot older but I still have favorite TV shows (Lost, Prison Break, and 24, to name three). I have something like 100 channels to choose from. But one day, after hearing Bruce Springsteen singing ”57 Channels (And Nothin’ On),” I wondered when I had last really examined TV the way I did when I was a kid. I decided I’d take a look. That I’d more than look, that I’d get outside my little rut of favorites and take a kind of basic-cable core sample.
This is that sample, taken on Jan. 3 of this year, between 7:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. And I’d say ”Holy s—, Newton Minow was right!”…except this is a family magazine. Here goes:
Fox Terry Bradshaw confesses: ”College football to me was the greatest experience of my life!” Yeah, but will it grow hair?… CBS A news story about Barack Obama. Seems that last name is a lot like the one belonging to a guy who carries a machine gun and hides in caves. Uh-oh…. NBC Hey! Go see Children of Men!… The CW Hey! Buy an oven glove! Now with the no-slip grip!… QVC Hey! Buy some plastic containers that look like Tupperware but are called something else! Only 35 seconds left!… Hallmark Channel One of the bad guys squalls, ”C’mon, guys! He’s just one man!” But that one man is… Walker, Texas Ranger!!!… C-SPAN Michael Chertoff, quacking about homeland security in his weird cartoon-character voice…. TV Guide Channel Interviewer asks George Clooney, ”Now, do you feel sexier in black and white or in color?”… Nickelodeon Jimmy Neutron Hulks out. Bet he could whup Mikey Chertoff’s ass…. Headline News Glenn Beck (Satan’s mentally challenged younger brother) deconstructs K-Fed…. USA Sleazebag in a suit says, ”I knew what they were asking, but I did it anyway.” This has to be part of the Law & Order franchise…. BET About 50 rappers doing a dance number. I have finally found something cool. But I must move on to… Lifetime Hey! Get hooked up with T-Mobile! (One randy teenage boy advises his friend to try this line: ”Do you know karate? ‘Cause your body’s kickin’.” No wonder these kids spend their lives on the phone.)… Food Network Emeril, mad with jubilation, tells me: ”If the sound of creamed corn…makes you crazy, then this is the show for you!!!” This, my friends, beggars comment…. Animal Planet HD is so wonderful. Here, crabs as big as 1950s Japanese horror monsters are crawling across my flat-screen TV…. CMT Either I’ve gone crazy or it’s Glen Campbell on Hee Haw. I’ll dream about this tonight, I think. Possibly a nightmare where everyone’s favorite Wichita Lineman gets devoured by giant crabs…. Discovery Health Hey! The Geico caveman sees a shrink!… Speed Grim-looking dude in a black T-shirt says, ”I ran into a little problem with the dash.” Not to worry, he took it out through that big hole where sane people keep their windshields…. AMC Hey! Ask your doctor about Vytorin! Now back to Platoon!… GSN Hey, fatty! Try Weight Watchers! Be an After!!… Style My Celebrity Home. Reader, don’t ask…. TNT Hey! Buy some — ahem — personal lubricant! (Don’t ask.)… Fox News Channel Bill O’Reilly (Satan’s mentally challenged older brother) deconstructs Mike Tyson…. Sci Fi Monster (possibly a giant crab) attacks some dude wearing glasses. Dude clocks the monster with a hubcap and gets away…. Bravo Looks like maybe we got Top Chef here. A young cook who looks like Antonio Banderas is frying something. On the beach. For an army of surfers. Ohhh-kay…. Court TV Rookie cops shoot at human targets, then take gambling classes in a fake casino; I am not, as Dave Barry says, making this up…. C-SPAN2 Rep. Barney Frank talking about health care…and oh, my God, he sounds like either Mel Blanc doing Porky Pig or Michael Chertoff doing homeland security.
We have come a long way since that old black-and-white Zenith table model in at least one respect: All I have to do is push a button to turn this damned thing off.
Still, I am bereft.
No creamed corn or personal lubricant for me.